There’s a discussion to be had regarding the divide between filmmaking and storytelling as a function of cinema. That isn’t so much a matter of narrative, surrealist, or documentary forms, but rather a broad impression the film gives off. To put the distinction simplest is to look at films as either introverted or extroverted. As a filmmaker, Ang Lee has precariously walked the line between the two for some time, often showing a powerful affinity towards his characters and how he represents their struggles. Recently, however, he has been just the captain of the vessel, being able to decide how he gets there, but not where he’s going. This has caused films like Hulk, Taking Woodstock, and now Life of Pi to go somewhat off the rails in terms of the stories Lee is telling.
That’s not to say there isn’t a fantastic story at the heart of Life of Pi, after all being based off a best-selling novel. It’s a wonderful tale to have passed to you, and Ang Lee is certainly passionate about what he received from Yann Martel’s telling. In his film adaptation, Lee is intent on passing the story now to us in his own unique way. It’s the story of Pi Patel, an Indian boy who is forced to travel with his family across the sea, away from the home and people he loves. En route to Canada, a freak storm hits the ship they’re traveling on, sinking it and leaving Pi stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
But Pi’s not alone in this, and that may not be such a good thing. Joining him on his journey is Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger which is constantly a risk of swallowing Pi whole. As they traverse across the ocean, as far as the eye can see, Ang Lee is given multiple opportunities to detail the gorgeous isolation of their situation. It’s essentially a close examination of these two figures who do not at all wish for each others’ company, but nonetheless need it. Except this regrettably isn’t the distanced sense of affection Lee is most adept at, and that’s not as much a slight of Lee’s as it is that of screenwriter David Magee.
The film shoots itself in the foot early on by utilizing a framing device used earlier this year, to equally debilitating effect in John Carter. That is the narrating of a story by the main character to the writer of the source book. Of course Rafe Spall is never addressed explicitly as Yann Martel, which does allow the actor the chance to make a rather devastated impression as the conduit for the audience. The issue is whenever such a framing device is used, it cuts off a great deal of the tension regardless of directorial persuasion and it builds an outright barrier between the characters and the viewer.
Life of Pi proves to be a rather telling title in how long it takes for the film’s main arc to arrive. Nearly half the film is spent with Pi explaining his childhood, his attachment to religion, the obligatory love story, and his relationship to the rest of his family. It’s in this portion that the film feels most akin to the recent work of Marjane Satrapi on Chicken with Plums. While it can be rather obnoxiously comical in how it represents the physicality of the certain individuals, it does allow for the occasion beauty to seep in. If it weren’t for the whimsically propelled editing, this portion of the film might have been endearing. As it stands, my reaction was the same as Spall’s Martel, that being principally “So what?”
But when the film’s fantastical plot gets going, boy does Ang know how to sell it. The chaotic shipwreck, regardless of your feelings regarding the characters, is a powerfully cinematic crossover from the world of the believable to that which is beyond belief. The periods of time involving Pi on the boat with Richard Parker are rather hit-and-miss, occasionally inundating the drama with the aforementioned comedic flatulence. Ever want to be pissed on in 3D? Boy, does David Magee have you covered on that one. He loads the script with plenty moments that are literally gross, and Ang Lee can’t help but reciprocate that a little bit. There are about as many over-glitzed visuals as there are legitimately gorgeous ones.
That said, I still find myself suggesting Life of Pi to be viewing in 3D, as it really should be seen. Not quite the best use of the technology this year (Dredd 3D is comparatively subtle in its visual tricks), but Lee creates something majestic in his emulation of God’s work. Sky, water, and light are digitally manipulated to create images that stimulate by their stark use of colour, mixed emphatically amongst one another as if Lee is trying to fit all the beauty in the world into one frame. Juxtaposition is the most used tool in Lee’s visual arsenal, best used in showing the smallness of the boat against the ocean; worst used when Pi is narrating with an annoying onesidedness.
When you’re meant to spend long periods of time with a single actor, it’s better to have an experienced one over a newcomer. Suraj Sharma’s debut performance doesn’t do much to put the audience in favor with the protagonist, garnering disbelief and unintentional laughter rather than genuine concern. It also didn’t help that the three actors who played Pi don’t really register as the same human being. It made it rather difficult to follow his emotional arc, much of the heavy-lifting being done by the visuals. The film’s religious inclinations are given their least presumptuous, most artfully significant treatment in how certain images evoke the murals you see inside churches.
I would consider Ang Lee much more responsible for the visual power of the film, given that Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is too often rather stilted and unmoving. His is a point-and-shoot method that works for visually compelled films such as his prior work Tron Legacy, but it still feels like a counter-productively uncaring match for Lee’s sensibilities. As the film sits on my mind, I realize my reception of it is not one of disappointment, given that it’s been a while since Lee has been this on his game. Mine is a feeling of simply downtrodden bad luck as I did not prefer the way it was told, and that’s the point of Lee’s game this time around. He’s passing the story on for us to receive as we will, and I hope people embrace this more lovingly than I found myself capable of.
Bottom Line: Ang Lee gorgeously emulates God’s design in Life of Pi, but is hindered by over-explanatory dialogue, indulging in far too many obvious questions.