Movie review: Ang Lee slices himself an animated piece of ‘Pi’

By Emilie G.C. Thompson

Two characters leave home and are forced to get along—the only snag is that one of them is an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. In “Life of Pi,” Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is the unlucky son of an Indian zookeeper who decides to move his family from India to Canada, along with all of their animals. After a disaster at sea, Pi finds himself adrift in a tiny lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and the aforementioned tiger. Though the narrative for the director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel “Life of Pi” is at times ponderous and overly sentimental, the journey of the lifeboat unfolds in a magical, minimalistic duet of sky and sea and is interspersed with enough gripping sequences of action to keep the film interesting.

“Life of Pi” is a romanticized interpretation of Martel’s novel with Lee adding long introspective sequences, dreamy interludes, and even a superfluous love interest. This “Pi” is less concerned with the concrete reality of being stranded at sea than the novel. The tangible details of the character’s narrative voice are largely abandoned, along with the majority of the accounts of Pi’s day-to-day struggle on the lifeboat. Lee focuses instead on Pi’s spiritual journey, dwelling on his thoughts—explored through extensive voice-over and monologue—rather than the work of his hands or the various strategies for survival essential to the novel’s appeal. Indeed, religion also plays a large part in Lee’s interpretation of Pi’s journey, though it is approached with lightheartedness, such as when Pi says, “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.” Martel (Rafe Spall) is given a more significant role in the film; he changes from a passive recorder of events in the novel to an obvious on-screen character. Spall offers a peaceful and calm portrayal of the character that does not overshadow Pi’s story.

Sharma’s first major role gives us a Pi of genuine innocence and desolation—a wise piece of casting on Lee’s part, as Sharma’s lack of exposure lends another layer of believability to the performance. Sharma captures Pi’s developmental arc from callow mommy’s boy to seasoned mariner through all the attendant highs, lows, and flashes of humor. However, Sharma’s skill is most clearly seen in his interactions with Richard Parker. Grounded as the story is in this journey from hell, it is easy to see Pi’s growing attachment to the tiger, though it is only really through him that the viewer develops a sense of its personality.

Richard Parker is a shining example of CGI. The 3D effects used throughout are rarely extraneous or unnecessary; indeed, they have an elegant simplicity unusual in films that use them. The landscapes, seas, and storms are at their most stunning with a washed-out palette, although Lee is tempted at times into the exaggerated psychedelic gorgeousness reminiscent of  “Avatar,” with which the film has been compared on its posters. The animal life, however, is a different story. There is a bizarre mix of beautifully lifelike creatures and jarringly obviously computer-generated ones, including an eerily smooth elephant and weirdly stoned-looking orangutan. The tiger, strangely, becomes more and more realistically rendered as the story progresses, until there are times when it reaches photographic quality; the illusion of its personality is matched only by that of its apparent reality. It is difficult to tell whether this phenomenon is intentional or not given some other crudely-created CGI characters. In any case, the creature is so expressive—whether gazing serenely at the ocean or hurling itself, roaring, across the boat—that it matches Sharma in keeping interest.

Despite the aforementioned inconsistencies present in the CGI, “Life of Pi” generally succeeds as a canvas for glorious visual effects and sweeping adventure. However, its strongest aspect is its touching story enlivened by a lead performance that may herald the beginning of a promising career for Sharma. If not, it at least solidifies Lee’s already established filmography.

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