Film review: ‘Life of Pi’
Wed, Nov 21, 2012 (midnight)
Whenever a book is labeled “unfilmable,” that’s pretty much a guarantee that some ambitious, foolhardy filmmaker is going to take it on as a passion project. Books like Naked Lunch, Tristram Shandy and Cloud Atlas were at one time considered impossible to be made into films, yet that didn’t stop the people behind the eventual movie versions. So it goes with Yann Martel’s 2001 award-winning novel Life of Pi, the bulk of which involves a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a large Bengal tiger.
Ang Lee is the foolish filmmaker in this case, and to his credit he brings every bit of his visual flair to the movie version of Martel’s book. Shot in 3D, Life of Pi never looks less than absolutely gorgeous, and it may be worth seeing for Lee’s inventive imagery alone. The first part of the movie is charming, with a whimsical storybook tone as it recounts the childhood of main character Pi Patel in India. With narration from the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), telling his story to a nameless writer (Rafe Spall) meant to represent Martel, it balances a wistful coming-of-age narrative with delightful magical-realist touches.
But that’s just the prelude to the heart of the story, which begins once Pi’s family boards a Japanese freighter bound for Canada, along with all of the animals from the family-owned zoo. The ship hits a storm and goes down, and teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) ends up trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger known as Richard Parker. As Pi struggles to survive and forges an uneasy understanding with Richard Parker, the events become a little repetitive, and while newcomer Sharma is impressive in what is essentially a one-man show, the core of the story is so internal that it can be tough for the movie to get it across.
Lee crafts some beautiful, poetic moments during the long stretch while Pi is at sea, and the movie’s effects are impressive (it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between real elements and digitally created ones). But the story lacks emotional engagement, especially whenever Lee returns to the clumsy framing sequence, and the fanciful tone is eventually at odds with the seriousness of Pi’s circumstances. Maybe Life of Pi isn’t entirely unfilmable, but Lee wasn’t quite able to conquer it.