Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
In Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, the titular young Indian man (Suraj Sharma) survives a shipwreck only to be trapped aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The story, calmly recalled by adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a writer (Rafe Spall) at Pi’s Montreal home, is such an incredible tale of endurance that, even as a work of fiction, it’s difficult to accept at face value. Aware of this potential flaw, as the film winds down, Pi presents an alternative take on the events, one in which humans play out his drama in place of animals. The ship at the bottom of the ocean and his family dead in each telling, Pi asks the writer to choose which version he likes better, and in turn presents the audience with the same question.
As young Pi relays this second, more believable (and possibly truer) account to a pair of insurance agents, Lee films him in the dullest manner possible. Shot straight ahead against a plain white hospital wall with only occasional cuts to the listening men, Pi’s telling is raw and simple, an emotionless record of death and perseverance.
The animal-filled account that comprises the bulk of the film, however, is anything but bland. As presented by Lee and screenwriter David Magee, and magnified by tasteful special effects and the finest use of 3D to date, Pi’s lifeboat journey with a tiger named Richard Parker is a thrilling feast for the senses. Plausibility be damned, the choice between iterations is a simple one, surpassed only by the conundrum-free nature of seeking out this borderline masterpiece.
Sent to Pi by a mutual acquaintance under the promise that he will hear a story that will make him believe in God, the writer is immediately taken with Pi, and for good reason. Each autobiographical tidbit pulses with heart and humor, especially early memories of being named for a French public swimming pool (his full name is Piscine Molitor Patel) and an insatiable religious curiosity (Pi is Hindu, Christian, and Muslim). Finely in tune with Magee’s masterful script, Lee takes Khan’s warm narration and brings his words to flowery life. In these innocent formative scenes, simple pleasures abound. Pi is inquisitive and young, consequences are few, and joy comes easy to character and viewer alike. What makes Life of Pi an immense success, however, is the consistency with which Lee unsentimentally depicts life’s allure once events turn tragic.
With Pi adrift on the Pacific Ocean after the ship containing his family and the animals of his father’s zoo goes down, the film could easily fall into the gloom of monotony. Ceding the lifeboat to Richard Parker and floating behind on a mini-raft comprised of lifejackets and oars, Pi’s days are limited to reading a survival manual and stealth sojourns to the tiger-ruled hull for dwindling supplies. Skimming this repetition, the film wisely focuses on the situation’s more notable moments, ranging from Pi’s various ingenuities to surprise marine visitors, and refuses to let hope (and with it, the narrative’s hold) subside.
Still, such happenings would only be so effective without newcomer Sharma, an engaging presence whose speech is full of Pi’s desperate hope for survival. Whether yelling at Richard Parker (whose own roars and murderous lunges somehow never grow stale) or imploring the skies for deliverance, each word rings with an authenticity amplified by his cinematic inexperience, the ideal vessel for his character’s own lack of worldliness. A true find, Sharma hits all the right notes, sounding neither overly rehearsed nor improvisational, and makes what could have been one long trudge at sea into a heartfelt, human tale of perseverance and triumph.
Woven into Life of Pi’s rich adventure and sumptuous visuals are larger messages, the bulk of which are delivered with subtle grace. Only occasionally, when the story overtly reaches for import instead of relying on the ample spectacle of Pi’s journey, does the film falter. Even then, it quickly finds its footing, steadying its focus on the deceptively simple power of storytelling. How could it not? With a gifted teller like Lee at the wheel, Yann Martel’s literary novel receives a worthy adaptation, and the intoxicating adventure that unfurls onscreen is a testament to the wonder of imagination. The resulting film may not be the best of the year, but it’s awfully close.
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.
Life of Pi is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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