Life of Pi is one of those rare films that is both entertaining and intellectually and spiritually stimulating. The presentation is much more appealing than you would imagine a tale which spends much of its time depicting a young man adrift in a small boat in the open sea to be. The thought provoking narrative is ensconced in an adventure story that is seasoned with unexpected bursts of delightful wit.
Indeed, the movie begins with laughter, in the joys and bittersweet reminiscence of childhood and adolescence, as Pi recounts acquiring his name. Although the film spends half of its time portraying a few short weeks, the movie really is the life of Pi. Overcoming the circumstances surrounding his unusual moniker is but a prelude. The film depicts the development process, as Pi learns how to cope with, and even exploit, the sardonic cruelties of life. The lesson will be reprised when his life spirals out of control. He finds, then loses, his first love to the merciless vagaries of economics. In his passage to the New World, his entire family is swallowed by the sea, upon which he finds himself the lone survivor. Well, almost. In his lifeboat, playing out a scene not unlike Sartre’s No Exit, are a cadre of wild animals, including a ferocious and increasingly hungry Bengal tiger. The very premise of the movie should be enough to draw anyone into the theater. Finding oneself absurdly trapped on a lifeboat with an insatiable tiger is a metaphor for the ages.
Every device is used to ease the boredom of the open sea, except, craftily, the boredom of the open sea itself, which director Ang Lee uses to great effect. By the time the protagonist Pi is going mad with the endless sameness of his world, you are just beginning to squirm on the edge of the theater seat. In a display of masterful storytelling, the action suddenly shifts. Pi--and the audience--wash ashore on an island. But not just any island. About the time you think this is a little too fanciful, Lee has an answer for that, as well, a magnificent denouement that pulls the whole story together and imbues it with meaning.
Visually, the film is stunning. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda has been nominated for an Academy Award. The 3D is as good, if not better, than Avatar. The film shares the same magical nature qualities. Compare the lustrous forests of Avatar with the iridescent jellyfish in Life of Pi. For that matter, Life of Pi has its own supernatural forest, as if Lee is bowing to his predecessor’s monumental achievement. Indeed the worst that can be said is that Lee has obviously studied the use of the technology intently. He knows the rules well enough to break them. For example, instead of absolutely avoiding the 3D schtick of hurtling objects at the viewer, a tenet not unlike actors avoiding looking directly into the camera, Lee shows how to use the artifice artfully.
Not that Life of Pi must be seen in 3D. Unlike Avatar, which suffers greatly when removed from the IMAX 3D immersive spectacular, Life of Pi holds its own as an entertaining and engaging film. Undoubtedly it will prove to be a video that is pulled off the shelf and played repeatedly. But if you get the chance, catch it in 3D in the theaters while you still have that chance.