THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"LIFE OF PI"
Life of Pi is proof that, in the hands of a filmmaker who knows what to do with it, 3D can be an indispensable cinematic tool. I often find myself acting as a 3D apologist. Yes, the process is frequently misused and/or used for no valid reason. Then a movie like this comes along and proves how essential it can be. Director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling novel would be excellent in any number of dimensions, yet it's the 3D that really transforms it into a magical experience. See Life of Pi any way you can – it's just that good – but to get the maximum enjoyment, fork over the extra few bucks to see it with the special glasses.
This is the story of an Indian teenager named Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), whose parents own a zoo. When they decide to move to Canada, they pack up their belongings, exotic animals included, and hop a freighter. A massive storm sinks the ship. Only Pi and a Bengal tiger (humorously named Richard Parker) survive, leaving them stuck on a lifeboat, adrift at sea. Pi recognizes that the tiger may very well try to make lunch of him, yet he can't bring himself to kill the majestic beast. His only option is to tame the creature. Over the course of nearly a year, he and the tiger forge an unexpected alliance, one that teaches Pi a valuable lesson about life.
A two-hour movie set on a lifeboat may sound boring or limited, yet Life of Pi is neither of those things. Ang Lee mixes everything together so that the movie never feels static. On a straight dramatic level, he shows how Pi learns to survive, finds ways to procure food, and faces several life-threatening situations that must be overcome. All the action sequences are magnificently staged, most notably the sinking of the freighter. As a boy-and-his-animal tale, the director creates an inter-species relationship that is reminiscent of The Black Stallion; Richard Parker becomes a fully-developed character in his own right, and the developing bond with his owner is extraordinarily compelling because of it. Lee also makes sure to give his film an irresistible theme to keep the audience invested. The story is about the value of faith, especially in times when that faith is being tested. Pi is inherently interested in religion. His mother nurtured his interest in multiple religions, including Hindu and Christianity. His father, meanwhile, urged him to believe only what he could see with his own eyes. Being lost at sea with the tiger, in increasingly harrowing circumstances, forces him to embrace both ideas. He must be practical about his boat-mate, yet also draw on faith to give him much-needed strength during the lengthy ordeal. All of this is a lot for one movie to juggle, yet Life of Pi weaves them seamlessly. It works as an action picture, an animal tale, and a parable.
Suraj Sharma is a complete newcomer to acting, and he nails the kind of role that would make veteran actors nervous. Sharma spends most of the movie acting alone, responding to a CGI tiger that isn't really there. Despite this, he is totally plausible, exuding a soulful quality that makes us care about what happens to Pi, both physically and spiritually. As the movie progresses, things take place that could best be described as “magical,” yet the actor grounds them, showing how they become part of Pi's evolution.
Now let's talk about the 3D. First, let me make it clear that 3D never makes or breaks a movie. If it's a great film – and Life of Pi is indeed a great film – it'll be great in any format. That said, Ang Lee has figured out how to use the technique to deepen the meaning of his story. Depth, scope, and proximity are all maximized. The first scene to knock me out showed a young Pi sticking his arm through the bars of a cage in order to feed the tiger a piece of meat. The 3D puts the tiger two inches in front of you, significantly emphasizing the danger Pi faces in that moment. During the astonishing storm sequence, Lee keeps the camera low, so the violent waves give a sensation of drowning. At various points while Pi and the tiger are on the lifeboat, he dips the camera below the surface of the water, conveying the feeling of floating helplessly in the vastness of the ocean. Each and every 3D choice, big or small, has been made to help you identify with Pi, to experience what he experiences.
Gorgeously photographed and filled with first-rate special effects, Life of Pi is a wonderfully unique and special film. It is filled with excitement yet, when all is said and done, it also has a surprising amount of thematic depth. Ang Lee tells the story of Pi's journey in a manner that is nothing less than spectacular. And the 3D represents a new gold standard.
( out of four)
Life of Pi is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril . The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.
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