Monday, February 4, 2013

The Cinema File #101: "Life Of Pi" Review

Honestly, I was a little hesitant to give Life of Pi a chance. I've not read the book, and just based on the trailer it didn't seem to be the kind of movie I typically get into. I knew I had to go see it eventually just for the chance to review it, but every time I made plans to see it, I'd just get flashbacks of Castaway, a movie that despite my love of Tom Hanks and my appreciation for the ingenuity of its premise, very nearly bored me to tears. Luckily, as it happens, Richard Parker the Man eating Tiger is easily a more interesting traveling companion than Wilson the Soccer Ball, and while I still had some issues with the film, Life of Pi is overall a wonderful movie, and at the very least a visual experience you shouldn't overlook.

Life of Pi is the story of Pi, an Indian boy who struggles from a young age to find the meaning of life and faith, only to find his spiritual journey transforming into a literal one when he is left stranded in the middle of the ocean with only a savage Bengal tiger for company. Given everything I had heard about the movie, I was surprised by how much set up we got before the fateful boat trip, and even more surprised by how much I enjoyed it despite my knowing that at some point all of this cute exploration of Indian culture would take a backseat to high seas adventure. By the time we finally get to the moment we've been waiting for, I found I could have easily spent another half hour or more on land, and when it was all over and done with, I can't say I enjoyed the first hour any less than the much more action packed second and third acts.

The story is told in flashback by the adult Pi to a man looking for inspiration for a new book, and the film establishes a sense of whimsy through this narrative device early on and never lets up, so that once we finally do get the parts that would strain credulity, we're already on board with the fantastical nature of this world. Whether or not the story is true becomes a large part of its meaning by the end, and what one chooses to believe and what that says about them is kind of the point, so I had no problem with the ambiguity or what you might consider the unreliable narrator. The suggestion at the end that much of the tale was simply allegorical, with certain animals taking the place of certain real people in his life in a more traumatic tale he prefers not to remember, is no less definitive than the notion that all of this really happened, and that the more realistic version was merely meant to placate those who refuse to believe. The closest movie I can come to for comparison is Tim Burton's Big Fish, and that strange melding of the possible and the fantastic infuses Life of Pi with the same childlike wonder.

I'm not one to readily anthropomorphize animals, and whenever I am expected to accept an animal as a full fledged character in a movie, I tend to be disappointed. When King Kong dies, I was always the guy wondering what the hell the problem was, considering it was a giant freaking monster ape that was stepping on actual humans who matter, so it was pretty shocking to me how easily I was able to feel for the animals who become major players in the story. The tiger, named Richard Parker due to a mix-up at the zoo between its given name and the name of the hunter who caught it, is obviously the most prominent non-human character, but prior to that we have a whole makeshift crew of stranded zoo animals including an injured Zebra, a hungry Hyena, and of course my favorite of all the monkeys, an Orangutan, and they all get their moments to shine before we're left with the showdown between man and beast. Even the army of mere cats who show up for all of five minutes feel like real people, and I'm the last person who ever buys into this sort of thing.

The conflict and eventual communion between Pi and Richard Parker never once comes off as silly, which given the scenario presented is a testament to the director's ability to construct his world in a believable way. Despite the ambiguous nature of the story, whether he's simply facing many obstacles, or being guided deliberately by some god or gods through a series of trials, or simply concocting a fairy tale, I never got the sense that the film was meandering or being purposely obtuse. If anything, I wanted to see more of a division between the world of the story and the world of the frame, with more fantasy elements thrown in. Beyond the unbelievable notion that this boy would survive any of this, the only thing in the movie that is outright supernatural is a carnivorous island likened to a giant Venus flytrap, and even that is more of a subjective interpretation than anything.

Even if you don't care about the story or the characters or anything else, Life of Pi is just plain beautiful to look at. I think at one point I called The Hobbit the prettiest movie I ever hated, and Life of Pi just puts it to shame, and seeing that both of these movies are up for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars, I sincerely hope the Academy still has enough good sense to pick the more deserving entry for once. My Picture Show Pundits colleague Nate Zoebl criticized the film being nominated for Best Production Design on the grounds that its setting is limited to a small boat, but as far as I'm concerned, he's missing the ocean for the vessel. The world of this movie is so big and so expertly realized that I can't remember the last time I was so immersed in something I had so little frame of reference for at the outset. I doubt this movie will win either Best Picture or Best Director, and truth be told I still probably liked Argo a little more (which also probably won't win), but at the very least, I'm definitely amending my top ten list for 2012.

A review like this is not the place to really go into the philosophical underpinnings of a movie, except to say that what the film is trying to say is said very well. The movie never panders or devolves into saccharine over sentimentality and I never felt like it was trying to talk over me, beat me over the head, or grapple with things larger than its scope. I kept remembering back again to Cloud Atlas, thinking that this is how you actually succeed in making an epic movie about grand themes like metaphysics and the human spirit. You'll have to see it for yourself to see if it moves you at all, but at the very least, its an experience that it well worth the undertaking.
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