It seems strange to criticize a movie for its beauty, especially considering the chief architect of that beauty is a filmmaker as visually and poetically gifted as Ang Lee, but beauty is exactly what fells the beast in Lee’s glossy Life of Pi. Adapted rather faithfully from Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel of the same name, this tale of an Indian boy who calls upon his tripled faith to help him survive an arduous journey aboard a lifeboat in the Pacific is filled with visual wonders. As a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, Pi (played by multiple actors, but most prominently Suraj Sharma on the lifeboat) is a teenager whose love of God gives him the strength to find hope in even the darkest circumstances. The religious angle isn’t particularly profound in book or movie, but it provides a nice backbone for the conflict that boils on the open ocean. The problem is that Lee gets bogged down in high angles that suggest omniscience and beauty that washes away the harrowing qualities of Pi’s experienced horrors.
The movie sure is pretty, but to the point of unnecessary, even detrimental distraction. Screenwriter David Magee, struggling to cram the most important chunks of Martel’s novel into an average running time (in this case 127 minutes), reduces Pi’s journey to an episodic trek that never quite seems capable of communicating the pain of the situation in a moving manner. And then Lee comes along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a talented team of digital effects artists and attaches glittering imagery to each episode. Eventually, sometime after seeing Pi encounter a phosphorescent whale breaching boldly in the dark or a birds-eye-view shot of the boat bathing in the reflection of a starry sky, the movie solidifies its position as an unusually superficial collection of postcards.
Fancy, expensive postcards, to be sure, but there’s an attractiveness to almost every step of Pi’s supposedly devastating journey that supports an almost enviable viewing of the events. We know that Pi is enduring hardship after hardship on board his lifeboat and makeshift raft (an occasional voiceover vaguely vocalizes the difficulties of starvation), but the dramatic anchor is set free every time he encounters a stunning vision. The movie becomes more of a CGI travelogue than a tough tale of willful survival. By the time Life of Pi reaches its conclusion, it looked like Pi actually had a pretty nice time with a few scrapes along the way. Obviously, such an observation requires some exaggeration, but it gets at the heart of the movie’s problem: Lee’s decision to give everything a shiny sheen ends up sanitizing the experience to the point of pushing emotional resonance out of reach.
Lee has juggled beauty with danger in the past, most notably in his martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a picture of poetic power both in the visuals and the narrative. The balance he achieved there would seem to suggest that he could be a good match for the material here, but his take on Life of Pi is needlessly clunky instead. Seemingly out of touch with the movie’s emotional potential, Lee keeps searching for God in the pretty images and comes up short with deities wrapped in plastic.
Although for all the decisions that confound, Lee still executes some good scenes throughout and ultimately turns in a watchable movie. With all of my accusations of ill-conceived beauty, I don’t want to suggest that Lee has made something devoid of otherwise impressive decisions. The choice to present much of the lifeboat portion without voiceover narration is a welcome one, especially considering that the temptation must have been there, given the novel’s first-person approach. There’s still more hand holding going on than is necessary, as Lee and Magee resort to the reading of journal entries or even to the telling of the story by an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) later in the timeline in order to convey certain blocks of info they deem otherwise difficult to communicate with only images.
The acting, while never spectacular, is almost always serviceable, with the glaring exception of Rafe Spall, whose performance as the author listening to Pi’s story in the modern piece of the timeline is a stiff, wooden bore. But Khan is decent enough, the young boys who briefly take stabs at young versions of Pi are fine, and Sharma is likably charismatic to the point that he dominates the camera quite comfortably when the movie is essentially reduced to a one-man show. The animators take over from there, creating a handful of believable animals destined to provide company for our faithful hero. An orangutan, hyena, and zebra all have brief stays on the lifeboat, but it is Richard Parker who becomes Pi’s partner throughout it all.
The memorably named Bengal tiger, a 450-pound mass of pixelated muscles, fur, and whiskers, is with Pi the whole time during the ocean ordeal and their potential friendship is complicated by the tiger’s wild tendencies. Richard Parker gets several moments to make his mark on the screen, both in some cute scenes and some loud, snarling, angry ones. As far as animal digital effects go, he’s a pretty good actor and certainly a convincing presence. And on the subject of animals, the opening credit sequence of the movie is stuffed with them, a charming start that represents some nice, simple condensing of the first chunk of the book.
What works in Life of Pi is still plentiful enough to be enjoyed. The photography is certainly eye-catching, if perhaps too garish, while the production design is impressive, especially when it comes to the ill-fated freight vessel that sinks with Pi’s family still aboard. The chaos of the sinking sequence is expertly constructed and Lee and Miranda make good use of 3D technology to layer the elements and put us in Pi’s shoes for a brief moment. But when it matters most, they abandon this connection in favor of glowing jellyfish and glassy surfaces touched by orange sunrises. They sure look nice, but they’re empty images in an already tamed take on this tale. So much beauty, so little purpose. Well, there is some purpose. Note to Mr. Lee: you have some postcards to mail.