The term visually stunning gets thrown around a lot these days without it truly being justified but Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is just that. Resplendent and vibrant, it’s a film which never fails to engage on a visual level even if it too often leans into slow and indulgent territory.
Based on the critically acclaimed novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a young boy who grows up in Pondicherry, India with his family who own a zoo. One day his father decides to sell the zoo, travelling with the animals by cargo boat to North America where he will sell them and start a new life with his family. However, on the journey they hit a bad storm and the ship sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat along with a zebra, hyena and a fully grown Bengal tiger.
Ang Lee is a diverse and inventive director when he wants to be and it’s his visual flourishes and subtle nuances that lend Life of Pi its beguiling quality. The plot is amazing enough on its own but Lee finds ever more interesting and unique ways to present it, starting things off with a compelling set-up and thrilling capsizing sequence. It’s just a shame, then, that the initially quick pace and excitement is not kept consistent throughout, to the point where it becomes languid and even a tad boring. Comparisons to the aesthetic of a really, really pretty screensaver would not be entirely inaccurate.
At the heart of the film is an inspiring story of survival, courage and faith which allows you to brings as much of yourself to it as much as it tries to draw you in. But the screenplay, by Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee, frequently makes the film feel stodgy and stilted in nature, especially in the middle section. There’s a difference between being deliberately paced so as to allow the audience to soak in the atmosphere, themes and emotions at hand and just labouring the point. And while there are certainly effective cases of the former it also, disappointingly, falls into the latter trap.
It’s debatable whether the film actually needed to be in 3D but there are sequences – for example the glowing whale jumping scene shown in all the trailers – in which it is utilised to greater effect, and more importantly with more purpose, than most 3D movies which are just churned out for the sake of the extra ticket price. 3D aside the film is undoubtedly a thing of visual beauty; the mere sight of a huge tiger on a lifeboat roaring, scrabbling for food and claiming its limited territory is arresting enough but there’s plenty more to marvel over on both a grand and a smaller, more detailed scale. Obviously a great deal of special effects were used to bring the tiger (and others) to life aboard the boat but it’s utterly convincing throughout – an example of where CGI can enhance the story rather than get in the way. It’s this imaginative, sumptuous aesthetic often advanced by effects that truly enthralls and sticks in the mind.
It has a problematic storytelling framework in that the main character is relaying his story to a writer who wants to turn it into a novel. Though this may have worked in the original book, in the case of the adaptation not only does it mean the film has to clunkily move between the present where the story is being told and the past in which the story takes place but it takes away any sense of danger that he won’t survive the ordeal. Of course that could be said about all stories framed in this way but it’s less inherent in the device and more in the story at hand and how that works in tandem with it. Unfortunately it detracts of the otherwise fantastic story rather than giving it the weight it needed. There’s also a kind of reveal at the end which, not to give anything away, allows you to reflect on everything you’ve hitherto seen and heard. It’s more of an idea that works in principal, and perhaps it does in the source material (which I have to admit I haven’t read), but due to the film sort of petering off in the last third it doesn’t have the emotional impact that was clearly intended.
There’s a lot to like about Life of Pi, from its wondrous visuals and moving score to its compelling performances and overall amazingly unbelievable story. I just wish it had been reigned in more to provide a much tighter, faster paced journey when it is so often left to languish. Nevertheless Lee has delivered , no matter how you look at it, a real experience of a movie.
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Life of Pi is released in UK cinemas on Thursday December 20th.