Thursday, April 25, 2013

Short Take: Life of Pi (film)

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi cements his place as his generation's answer to David Lean. Lee is undoubtedly the current king of literate spectacle filmmaking. The film’s screenplay, credited to David Magee, stays close to the story outline of the book. A middle-aged Hindu Canadian (Irrfan Khan) relates the story of his life before coming to North America in his late teens. We see his life growing up in the Indian city of Pondicherry, including his experiences at his father’s zoo, the story of how he came by the name “Pi,” and his explorations of religion. As a teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), his family decides to move to Canada, and this sets the stage for the story’s centerpiece. The cargo ship on which the family is crossing the Pacific sinks at sea. Pi is the sole human survivor. He finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with the family zoo’s adult Bengal tiger. For several months, the two are lost at sea together, and Pi is committed to seeing that both of them survive. He gradually learns to coexist with the animal, and their journey opens him up to the magic of nature and a more profound connection with God. Ang Lee, cinematographer Claudio Miranda, and visual-effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer use their considerable talents for all the pictorial grandeur they can muster. By any standard, the film works well as an intelligent, exciting survival story. But the depth of one’s admiration most likely hinges on one’s reaction to the epic visuals. Many will undoubtedly get caught up with the awe of nature the film is seeking to evoke. Others, though, may find the imagery too blandly pretty, pristine, and self-consciously monumental to give over to it. The film also doesn’t come close to the book's existential philosophical richness; the efforts at transposing those aspects of the novel are rather shallow. Ang Lee, like David Lean before him, often mistakes lavishness for artistry, but he’s a fine storyteller nonetheless.

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