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‘Life of Pi’ captivates moviegoers

Dylan Dobson, 4Play Editor
November 27, 2012
Filed under 4Play

Can one story make you believe in God? “Life of Pi,” puts forth the assumption that, despite its status as fiction, it could be that story.

Based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel, “Life of Pi” has had a turbulent production history. The film faced a revolving door of directors before Ang Lee of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame was secured. The novel was, for a long time, considered to be unfilmable.

This assumption was justified. A majority of the plot occurs on a single lifeboat, with action being split between flashbacks and the lead character’s struggle for survival.

Much of the time Piscine “Pi” Molitor lacks companionship, other than the animals sharing his lifeboat. It was feared that this lack of human relationships could harm the film’s success.

However, like the novel, the film finds humanity in Pi’s courageous actions, as well as his personification of the animals onboard his lifeboat. Richard Parker the tiger and Orange Juice the orangutan especially function here in a similar fashion to Wilson the volleyball from “Castaway.”

The film begins by cataloguing the odd chain of events during Pi’s youth in India that led to him being shipwrecked. As a youth, Pi enjoys a comfortable life living amongst animals in a zoo run by his parents who seem loving and supportive despite their differing opinions with Pi on the subject of religion. He finds love at a dance studio and carries on a steady relationship.

However, this is all, of course, before war and a declining economy forces his parents to sell the zoo to travel to Canada and make new lives for themselves. They travel with their animals upon a Japanese vessel populated by well-meaning Buddhist sailors as well as an unsavory and brutish French chef.

Then the boat sinks, in a sequence that is more visually gut-wrenching than the final reel of James Cameron’s “Titanic,” leaving Pi alone at sea with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and tiger. Pi thinks that he’s gotten lucky. At least he has companionship in the animals he’s come to know living at the zoo.

This is, however, until the hyena turns against the zebra and Orange Juice, and Richard Parker mauls the hyena. With just the two of them remaining, Richard Parker and Pi must strike a truce and find interspecies understanding in order to survive being stranded in the Pacific.

Pi’s entire journey is beautifully shot and rendered with breathtaking scope. The shots are wide and artistically arranged. It’s easy to get lost in the film’s expanse and feel shipwrecked as well.

The graphic work is also impressive. A majority of the settings were completely rendered digitally in post-production, but tastefully so in comparison to the gaudy landscapes of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” or the upcoming “Oz the Great and Powerful.” The biggest testament to the film’s graphical achievement, however, is that viewers will have trouble discerning the shots where live animals were used and which ones were populated by CG fauna.

In addition to the physical and tangible CGI work, the film also employs the use of several psychedelic sequences of animals transforming and colorscapes reminiscent of a computer screensaver.

These sequences, which take a cue from 2009’s indie-hit “Enter the Void,” were likely added to emulate the way the novel describes spiritual delusions incurred during periods of starvation at sea, and are extremely beautiful to behold.

However, this attempt to inject excess spirituality to the film is also one of its biggest flaws. The film foregoes deeper plot or character development, ignoring morsels of flesh on the already dry bones that the source material provides in order to find time for such spirituality. Are mainstream audiences ready for a spiritual journey such as this? Perhaps not.

Suraj Sharma’s portrayal of Pi at times comes across as robotic. However, the attention to detail in his character — the way he thins out through the film’s 127 minute run-time, the way his clothes slowly deteriorate and accumulate blood and salt and his hair grows out — adds emotional weight to Pi. This is aided by the exceptional script that, though flawed in pacing, provides several shiver-inducing moments of awe.

Ang’s vision attempts to keep “Life of Pi” extremely wholesome. Much of the brutal animal violence seen in the novel is simply implied or artistically portrayed here. While this decision seems logical since the film is being marketed as a family flick, it’s also questionable. It’s doubtful that children will be able to grasp “Life of Pi’s” epic plot, or appreciate its highly spiritual center.

All in all, “Life of Pi” stands as one of the most visually stunning cinematic masterpieces. Those seeing the film in 3D or Imax will be awe-struck at the film’s massive scale and impressive settings. However, those looking for above-average plot will find little more than an aesthetically mesmerizing companion to the far superior novel.