Most movies won’t appeal to everyone. Everyone has different tastes in film, and certain archetypes or stories just won’t do it for certain people. But Ang Lee may have made an exception to this rule with “Life of Pi,” which really does have something for everyone, whether it’s an adventure story, a religious discussion or a character piece.
There’s not much in the way of story in “Life of Pi,” but in this case, it’s okay, because the protagonist and his circumstances are perfectly capable of holding the audience’s interest. What little story there is concerns Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma, making an excellent debut) as he tells his life story to a journalist (Rafe Spall), who was told Pi’s story would make him believe in God. The film chronicles Pi’s early life and experiences with religion, and his survival after being left adrift at sea when a shipwreck claims his family, leaving him with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.
With such a sparse setup and heavy focus on character, it’s no surprise that “Life of Pi” is based on a novel (a Booker Prize-winning one, in fact), which may be a cause for alarm. How could this possibly be interesting on film? Fear not: As evidenced in his previous film “Brokeback Mountain,” which also relied on character over plot, Lee is a masterful visual storyteller.
The numerous real and CGI vistas of the ocean and sky, as well as the highly realistic and detailed work on the animals, perfectly convey the characters’ emotions and are breathtaking to look at (there’s a scene with a whale that will blow your mind). Lee makes use of voice-over narration throughout the film, a technique that amateurs often too heavily rely on in this type of story, but it makes perfect sense in the film and never becomes too on-the-nose or distracting.
Lee also never allows the more fantastical moments to outshine the darker, more human portions of the story or let them become silly. The best example of this is a scene involving a flock of flying fish that could have been a complete mindscrew or felt far too much like a deus ex machina, but it somehow just feels “right” in context.
In addition to Lee’s excellent direction, Sharma’s low-key performance keeps the film grounded in reality and keeps the viewer emotionally invested. His work in the film is naturalistic, without love-me mugging or glaring inexperience to be seen. The fact that Lee chose not to cast a big name actor displays a great deal of confidence in the strength of the story and character (as well as Sharma) that isn’t seen often today.
The film’s best aspect is its mature, subtly handled perspective on religion. In today’s society, it seems that we’re incapable of talking about religion without devolving into petty insults or straw man arguments, but “Life of Pi” refreshingly does not grandstand or hurl judgment upon those who disagree with its perspective on the importance of faith in one’s life and whether or not multiple ideologies or theologies can truly coexist. The film asks the question, but doesn’t give easy answers or cheat by shying away from such topics, and the ending helps provide a great deal of closure.
Of course, if you don’t care about all that, you can still content yourself with the “man vs. wild” struggle in all its dynamic glory. Since the film thankfully avoids anthropomorphizing the animals, there is never a balance between Pi and the numerous wild creatures he encounters, keeping the viewer on edge.
All in all, “Life of Pi” is a wonderful, wonderful film that never intellectually shanghais its audience in favor of entertainment (or vice versa), and is surely one of the best films of 2012.
Speakeasy Grade: A
“Life of Pi”
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril