Movie Review: Life of Pi- A Noble but Unfulfilling Attempt by Ang Lee to Bring a Fantastical and Beautiful Story from the Page to the Screen

The novel “Life of Pi” written by Yann Martel was described very early on as a book that just couldn’t be portrayed or captured on film in its fantastical grandiosity. Any filmmaking endeavor to try and tell this story of self-discovery, loss, survival, and faith would be an epic journey almost doomed to fail. Director Ang Lee was not unfamiliar with the extravagant or the fantastical before taking on this expetional project considering one of his renowned audience pleasers is Crouching  Tiger, Hidden Dragon. However, after seeing the complete version of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi it’s safe to say that the novel is still impossible to capture in its full essence on the screen. This is by no means a critical lambasting of Lee’s attempt but rather a critical analysis on how he let an opportunity go to waste. The film version of Life of Pi is about half of a good movie that layers beauty, struggle, and a test of faith inside a boy and his forced path to becoming a man. If it weren’t for the off pace of the first half of the film, the odd transposing image editing transitions, or the rushed ending then Ang Lee’s noble attempt would have been a wonder of cinema instead of just a visually pleasing taste of what could have been.

Life of Pi follows the book in that it is divided into three sections: the older Pi reminiscing about childhood, the young teenage Pi struggling at sea, and the concluding conversation with the Japanese Ministry of Transport. Though the book is relatively lengthy and exceptionally detailed it seems screenwriter David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) chose not only to rush the first part of the story, resulting in jolting transitions and lack of detail, but also speeds through the third part making the conclusion not as reflective or as conceptually fulfilling as it should be. The script glides over the theoretical attributes the book tackles, such as faith, love, survival, and kindred spirits, and introduces them in a superficial capacity in the rushed first part of the film. Magee’s script, however, does justice to the core plot contained in the second movement of the story following Pi as he fights for life alongside an initial competitive survivalist turned companion Richard Parker, a zoo tiger. Once the film hits this essential and beautiful part of the story the film takes off not only in content, performance, and effects but also in its visual cinematography.

It was a wise decision for Ang Lee to bring cinematographer Claudio Miranda on board because his limited career has dealt with sweeping beauty of image such as in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Most of the sequences are beautifully shot with the 3D camera work though sometimes the 3D isn’t necessarily a complimentary feature as it was for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or James Cameron’s Avatar.  But despite this unnecessary use the visuals are undeniably good, whether it’s the underwater tracking of Pi trying to find his family in a sinking ship or the spontaneous eruption of a whale in glowing water. The visuals are the core strength of Life of Pi and are definitely used best once we get deeper into the sea journey of Pi and Richard Parker. It’s always difficult to tell a story in a confined space and it seems that restriction forced Ang Lee to really focus on the second movement of the story while the freedom he was given for the first and last parts was sort of messily handled. Just goes to show that sometimes limits are freeing when it comes to creativity.

As acting goes it doesn’t get much harder than to be the sole living, breathing individual on the screen. It’s demanding work and newcomer Suraj Sharma handles the task with subtlety, humor, and understanding. Most of the time he is acting with nothing there unless of course there was an actual tiger on set but even so that means his task was to emit twice the emotion in every scene. While the visual effects for the animals doesn’t work all the time (the Hyena, the Zebra, and the Chimpanzee namely) it was heavily focused on bringing Richard Parker the Tiger to life and in the end it’s a believable and beautiful match. And of course the great Irrfhan Khan makes the appearance as the older Pi reminiscing about the events that took place on the ocean with Richard Parker and he is as always reserved yet wholeheartedly felt. If only the odd choices in creative editing or transposing images on top of one another weren’t so heavily used in the beginning because it ended up saturating many aspects of the important performances. It’s always sad when the potential was great and the product ends up slightly above mediocre.

Mediocre is a strong negative word that shouldn’t be used towards the actual end product that is Ang Lee’s noble attempt at adapting “Life of Pi.” The film isn’t mediocre by any standard because it touts incredible visuals and very strong middle that is both beautiful and contemplative. All of the conceptual ideas contained in the book, such as faith and survival, are strongest in the movie once the adventure is only between Pi and Richard Parker the Tiger but it comes too late in the running time for the film not to be faulted for a messy handling of the beginning. Ang Lee has always been an interesting filmmaker, whether it was the suburban critique in The Ice Storm or the forbidden love in Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is a welcome and expected addition to his filmography. However, that means that it’s another film that has incredibly strong and beautiful moments but doesn’t deliver in its full potential capacity. The book “Life of Pi” was labeled impossible to capture on film and while Ang Lee virtuously tried he ended up proving that statement mostly correct.

Grade: B

Note: This movie will be released November 21st

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