A Slice of Life, by David Bax
Big, “important” movies, particularly the bad kind that tend to crowd theaters at this time of year (I’m looking at you, The Impossible), often hew to a familiar underlying formula. That is, they pretend to take a look at their subjects from a hard and realistic perspective and then they reward their audience for its middlebrow dedication by providing some cynical, hollow uplift at the end. Meanwhile, fuzzy and optimistic movies are condescendingly labeled “crowd-pleasers.” (In fairness, that condescension is usually appropriate.) Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, however, is both humanistic and optimistic in ways that are not specifically engineered only to please crowds. Lee comes by his positivity honestly, earning it at every turn by exhaustively attending to his gripping, thrilling and transformative tale.
Suraj Sharma plays the titular Pi Patel, an Indian boy whose family falls on hard times. They decide to pack up the zoo that they run and move to Canada. Somewhere near the Philippines, though, a massive storm sinks their ship and, in the chaos, Pi ends up sharing a lifeboat meant for 30 with a Bengal tiger. The film chronicles his fantastical journey across the Pacific to Mexico. Along the way, he battles loneliness, grief, hunger, thirst and, of course, a tiger.
That description is a tad misleading, however. The story actually starts well before the shipwreck and Lee gives over a hefty chunk of the first act to familiarizing us with Pi and his life thus far. After a gorgeous opening title sequence consisting only of music and shots of animals, we follow Pi from a young age as he learns about human cruelty, human kindness, love, food, religion and just how far you can trust a tiger. What is demonstrated is not only Pi’s openness to experience but also the fact that, when his singular sea voyage begins, he is still in the process of figuring out who he is. Which we all are all the time anyway.
Lee’s imagery is replete with supernatural beauty as well as compositions and occurrences that will inspire awe. This is true both before and after the shipwreck but it really comes into bloom once Pi is alone with the tiger (who is named Richard Parker, by the way). By this point, the only witness to the events is Pi himself – played as an adult by the incomparable Irrfan Khan – and so what we experience is taking place as much in his mind as it is on the sea. It’s in these sections that Life of Pi earns its positivity. Lee addresses head-on the harshness of life at sea and, metaphorically, life in general. When Pi is confronted with dehydration or another storm or, you know, a hungry Bengal tiger, the danger is visceral. The film is harrowing and tense to the point of actual, physical effect.
These results are achievable not because Lee chose to shoot his film in 3D but because of how he did it. The 3D is not subtle and neither, it should be noted, is the copious use of computer-generated imagery. Unlike other movies, where these conspicuously phony effects are a distraction, Lee makes them feel of a piece by presenting his entire film (with the exception of the modern-day framing device) in a heightened realm. This is a storybook, a fable. The things and people that were actually present during production are, in their own way, no more real than the whale that leaps from the water on a night lit from below by glowing algae.
Of course, Lee could not make this film only with effects and production design. Luckily, his actors are up to the standard set by their surroundings. Khan is, as always, fantastic. His subtle and comforting performance grounds the rest of the film and tethers it to an emotional verisimilitude that is indispensable. The loudest accolades, though, should go to Sharma, whose fearless and ferocious presence cues the thrilling ups and downs. He translates Pi’s fears, his pains and, most importantly, his joys and triumphs with a fierce fidelity to reality.
By setting Pi adrift with little but water and a tiger with which to commune and in the way it addresses the hardest parts of life and emerges optimistic, Life of Pi could be seen as a year-end companion to another effects-heavy, big-budget art film, Cloud Atlas. Whereas Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis attempted to demonstrate that we, as human beings, are one with each other, Lee’s film illustrates that we are also one with the world around us and everything in it.
Many have asserted that Life of Pi makes a case for the artistic merits of 3D. It does. It also, in its greatness, makes a case for the theatrical experience. A film this wonderful, however, is really just making a case for cinema itself.