Life of Pi” seems to be getting at some big themes. The story asks multiple times if animals have souls or if, what we perceive as souls, are simply humans projecting their own feelings on to them. (I write this as my beloved six-year old dog curls up next to me, sleeping soundly and warmly. That should tell you my opinion on the first matter.) The events of the story seem to prove to the characters the existence of God. The film never conceptualizes that idea into the bones of the story. Religion and faith is obviously something the film is concerned with yet those thoughts are frequently pushed to the side by the story’s more present concerns. A plot twist in the last act makes it obvious that this is a film about storytelling, how we use fiction to reassemble and compartmentalize reality into acceptable terms. These are all compelling concepts and maybe if “Life of Pi” stuck with one instead of trying to explore all three willy-nilly it would have been a more satisfying film.
At one point, about half an hour in, I wondered if the whole movie was going to be a kid yelling at CGI animals on a boat. It’s not but we can be forgiven for wondering. For a fact, large portions of the film concern themselves with Pi’s conception and childhood. Pi’s school days provides some amusing early moments, such as when he proves to the rest of the class why he’s called Pi. As a young boy, Pi adopts Hindu, Catholicism, and Islam all as his religion, in sharp contrast to his father’s cold logic. (I'm not exactly fond of the way the movie vilifies a belief in logic and science.) This angle provides ample opportunity for satire, contrast and comparison between the beliefs, and development of faith. The film doesn’t really do much with it, besides adding some quirkiness to Pi’s character. The film does even less with the young love story added in these early going chapters. That literally builds to nothing.
The boy and his tiger in a boat does take up the majority of the film’s run-time. During these moments, “Life of Pi” becomes a fairly compelling survivalist story. Though on the surface it’s utterly preposterous, the movie builds a convincing reality around the boy and the boat. There’s an odd comfort to the life they build, the boy floating just off the lifeboat in his cobbled together raft. The two debate control and territory, at first totally stand-off-ish to one another. (There's a funny moment when the tiger counters Pi's attempt to mark his territory.) Slowly, they realize that one depends on the other. Unlike many other survival stories, this one is less concerned with the gritty actualities needed to live through such a situation. While it doesn’t undersell the seriousness of the scenario, it instead builds on the bond between boy and animal. The film usually does a good job of balancing voiceover and action, allowing us entry into Pi’s thoughts without spelling anything out… Except for one glaring sequence where the film does exactly that, spelling out in voiceover how the two divergent types have become depended on each other.
At it’s most interesting, the film trades in allegory and surreal images. The ocean is frequently filled with odd lights and wondrous sights. Amusingly, a huge whale bursting out of the water is treated with awe before the film hilariously shows the downsides of a giant whale slamming into the water near your little boat. The image of a cloud of flying fish pelting the boat is slightly absurd, somewhat harrowing, and similarly funny. There’s a dream sequence where fish, squid, and faces of friends and family appear out of the depths. In the movie’s most blatant moment of unreality, Pi washes ashore on an island made of algae, populated with droves of meerkats, and featuring acidic pits of water and carnivorous plants.
Ang Lee is well known for putting pretty images up on-screen and “Life of Pi” is certainly a beautiful film to look at. I whole-heartedly expect it to win Best Cinematography. He does some interesting thing with transition. Surprisingly, the director indulges in quite a bit of 3-D eye gouging, throwing fish, waves, ores, and leaping tigers at the audience. CGI is used extensively. At times, it’s tricky to tell the real tiger apart from the computer generated construct while it’s blatantly obvious other times. The hyena and orangutan are much less convincing.
Suraj Sharma gives an excellent performance in the lead role. He ably carries the whole film on his young shoulders. A moment during a thunder storm where your unsure if Pi’s sanity is slipping away or not is particularly effective. Of all the nominations and awards the film has earned, it’s disappointing to see the talented Mr. Sharma locked out. The score plays better on film then it does by itself, helping along a few of the movie’s more lyrical moments. It’s still not a great score though, that’s for sure.
“Life of Pi” obviously works with allegory and symbols. It can be assumed that the tiger and man-eating island all mean something. However, the movie treats all of these events as nothing short of actual. There seems little doubt that Ang Lee believed all these things actually happened to the character. While slightly heavy-handed, it mostly works in a decently interesting way. Any of the slight ambiguity the film builds up is completely wasted in the last minutes. Two separate characters opening talk about what actually happened and what every little symbol means. It’s exhausting, frustrating, and disappointing. Leave something up to the viewers, for fucks’ sake. Even more aggravating, the film force-feeds you the message that we write our own story, we choose what to believe. (I guess this ties into the film’s story of faith and religion.) “Life of Pi” sells out pretty much all the good will it created for itself by being a competent, well-acted, generally likable, believable, and compelling flick with this asinine turn. [6/10]