Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is an extraordinarily beautiful film. Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda made Yan Martel’s contemplative bildungsroman about a young man’s attempts to stay alive while lost at sea with a Bengal tiger, into a visually stunning meditation on the meaning of life that despite high minded subject matter never feels pretentious or less than heartfelt. For all “Life of Pi’s” strengths, it has a patina of dusty classicalism that it never manages to shake off and a narrative imbalance that it never resolves successfully, which makes the film an exquisite museum piece.
The film is presented via a series of flashbacks told by the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to a reporter (Rafe Spall) about his adolescence in India and his faithful time as a castaway. The sections of the film that cover Pi’s childhood as a seeker who finds a path to God through a variety of religious practices are surprisingly the most compelling. The adult Pi’s recollections of his encounters with a variety of faiths, his zookeeper father’s dismissal of religion as a whole, and his navigation thereof is fascinating as is Lee’s lack of judgment on the subject. Young Pi’s (Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon) essential conflict- less struggles are observed plainly and it is left to the audience to understand how these affected the man he would become. Unfortunately, this intellectual distance falls away as the story moves into the fantastic.
As the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) journeys with his family from India to Canada, the freighter they travel on is sunk during a violent storm and Pi and a handful of his family’s animals are the only survivors. With its philosophical underpinnings and stakes established, the “Life of Pi” then gets to the heart of the matter: will Pi’s deeply held faith and his life endure being set adrift with a vicious tiger? It is in the lifeboat setting the Lee and Miranda earned their recent Academy awards. The best scenes are those in which Pi negotiates life aboard his small new home, including building a relationship with the tiger, catching enough fish and rain water to keep them both alive, and overcoming the harsh vicissitudes of living in open water. In this aquatic landscape, we are treated to visions of rainbow colored fish zipping through the air and water, majestic neon whales, and a glowing island full of lethal mystery. These sequences are more lush and enthralling than anything in the modern history of cinema. And the tiger seen in the film, a composite of digital creation and real animal is one of the most realistic pieces of CGI I’ve ever seen.
Despite “Life of Pi’s” uncommon beauty and intelligence, it lacks the vitality of Lee’s earlier films. Miranda’s visuals, while gorgeous, are emotionally distant and since the film deals primarily in spiritual matters, it often drifts away from its human core. For example, as we watch Pi live through a violent storm that destroys much of his remaining food supplies, we are told of his emotional despair instead of experiencing it through Suraj Sharma’s performance. This turns a potentially devastating plot development into an unfortunate circumstance. Lee might have used this device to reflect the story’s literary origins but in practice, it takes the viewer out of the action at a critical moment.
There are other moments in the film that are more effective, such as Pi’s father telling that the lights he admires in religious celebration represent the darkness of irrationality or Pi offering a less fantastic explanation of his survival to insurance investigators but the intellectual remove persists through its running time. For its flaws, Lee’s “Life of Pi” is still an achievement of technical prowess and one of the most visually dazzling films in years. It’s the work of master of the form, but not a masterpiece.
“Life of Pi” is available on streaming video and Blu-ray through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org