IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 129 mns
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Pi Patel, an immigrant from Pondicherry in India living in Canada, is approached by a local novelist who has been referred to him by his “uncle” (a family friend), believing that Pi’s life story would make a great book. Pi relates how he was originally named Piscine Molitor after a French swimming pool but changed his name to Pi because he was tired of being taunted with the nickname “Pissing Patel”. His family owned a local zoo, and Pi took an interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. When Pi was 16 and experiencing first love, his father decided to close the zoo and move his family to Canada, and sell the zoo animals. Their ship encountered a heavy storm and sunk, killing everyone except for Pi, who was thrown into a lifeboat by a lifeguard. He found that he is sharing the boat with some of the animals…..
Even though I found his Hulk, considered a failure by its studio because it was different from the typical samey superhero exercise, to be amongst the best and certainly the most interesting movie to come from Marvel, I’ve never really considered Ang Lee to be as good as the majority of critics regard him as. He’s an intelligent but cold, analytical director; look at Brokeback Mountain, superbly made in every way but unfeeling and mechanical. Life Of Pi, from a book that Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M.Night Shyamalan all considered filming, might be the best film he’s ever made. I wouldn’t say it’s perfect; it seems to me somewhat confused in its message, the last ten minutes are pointless and the special effects, though mostly very good, are occasionally poor, especially when seen in 3D, which has burdened the film somewhat. It is though a rather beautiful, haunting picture though, with a unique texture to it which raises it considerably above the many much-hyped disappointments of this year. For once, I walked out of the cinema pretty satisfied.
Now much has been made of the fact that this has been misleadingly marketed as a ‘family flick’, the kind that parents take their kids to rather than the kids go to see with their mates. I don’t think the marketing is misleading at all. Yes, the film is slower paced than the hyper fast kid’s stuff you usually get these days, has mature themes and contains things like death and animals in distress, but that’s what the parents are there for isn’t it?, to explain and maybe comfort. At the showing I saw, there were quite a few adults with kids and I didn’t hear a murmur from them. If this film had been made in the 60’s it would have been considered a family film. Nowadays, because it doesn’t feature talking animals or fart gags, it’s thought of as being unsuitable for children. A really sad sign of the times. This and Hugo are the kind of movie kids should be seeing to make them think and learn, even if in the end adults will probably get more from them.
Any suspense is somewhat lessened when we know straight away that Pi survived his ordeal, and I’m not sure that the framing device is essential. Still, the early flashback scenes, taken at a pace which is faster than usual for Lee, are done with the minimum of fuss as well as showing off the beauty of India [well, as long as you don’t think of Slumdog Millionaire]. Scenes where Pi begins to follow three different religions may strike some as pointless, but certainly intrigued me as someone who was brought up a Christian and as a teenager found it ceased to speak to me so gave up on it. Religions are constantly at odds with each other, but in the end they are all founded on the same principles, so why not follow more than one? Than we have the scene where Pi first meets Richard Parker the tiger [called so because of a clerical error], and despite all the praise that has been lavished on the CGI effects, I was dreading it. However, I was wrong. Right from the first shot of him, he totally convinces as an living animal except for close-ups of his face. Think of Aslan in the first two Narnia movies [not so much the third] but with the quality tripled.
It’s quite some time before we find ourselves at sea and when we do, we have a vivid storm sequence which is quite frightening but is at times quite blurry from the 3D. As with The Hobbit, I saw Life Of Pi in 3D because I’m a busy bee at the moment and just did not have time to see an available 2D showing. With this particular film, I would say that the 3D detracts from the experience. Some bits are too dark, others look a mess. Sometimes Lee has a bit of fun with things coming out of the screen but for the most part he concentrates on that ‘depth of field’ crap that people like Ridley Scott say is the best use of what is just a gimmick. The 3D also means that when there is a weak effect, like the brief appearance of a dolphin which doesn’t even look finished, it looks worse than it would have looked in 2D. Generally the technical side of things succeeds more than fails; the water, which often looks bad when done digitally, mostly looks great, if not really much of an advance on The Perfect Storm. The animals all look good and I did forget about the bluescreen for much of the time because I was engrossed in what was happening.
You may wonder how a film which spends two thirds of the time in a boat with a boy and a tiger can be engrossing, but it most certainly is, being both a riveting tale of survival and a slightly fantastical adventure story, with happenings like a sudden huge shower of flying fish just when Pi and the tiger are starving, and a really atmospheric diversion on an island which is not only carnivorous but seems to be almost alive, things which can’t really happen, but you buy anyway. Claudio Miranda photographs this film stunningly, with some shots of a truly awe-inspiring nature which make this probably the best photographed film of the year. Sometimes the boat even appears to sail in the sky because the water is so clear. Lee even lets us see inside Pi’s head sometimes, turning a solar system in a comic into a gaudy psychedelic spectacle and delving deep under the sea where all the animals have died but seem to be swimming around in some kind of heaven or hell. Meanwhile the relationship between boy and tiger manages to be both touching and amusing without lapsing into comic hi-jinks or sentimentality until towards near the end, where it is justified. Even here, Parker never ceases to be a wild carnivore. The film seems to be commenting on our love of animals and how we sometimes pointlessly humanise them.
The supposed twist at the end isn’t really much a twist and adds an unnecessary complication to the story, while Pi may claim his tale will make his listener believe in God but seems to be more a celebration of human fortitude and resilience. I don’t see the film as supporting religion at all, but I guess this is one of those stories that you can take something away from whatever you beliefs. Life Of Pi introduces a brilliant new actor in Suraj Sharmar. He does superbly in a role which requires virtually every human emotion and I hope he will stick around. There’s a great deal of score in this film, but Michael Danna does a great job, moving effortlessly from music that evokes the sights and sounds of India to more conventional scoring. I have not read the book on which Life Of Pi is based, but Lee and his team have mostly succeeded in carrying off a very difficult project. Thoroughly recommended….but see it in 2D.