In its finale, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi plays a dangerously precarious balancing act. The note the story – sourced from the beloved 2001 novel by Yann Martel – chooses to end on walks a very fine line between igniting the true thematic arc of the film and betraying everything the viewer has invested in up to that point. The ending presents a direct and complex challenge to the viewer, one that cannot easily be processed; no matter what one’s ultimate conclusion is on what the final minutes have to say or how successfully the message is conveyed, those final scenes will absolutely color the way one looks at the film.
I personally find the ending fascinating, and lead by mentioning it because of how clearly the delicately provocative conclusion raises my opinion of the preceding material. Though Life of Pi is never anything less than unique and engaging, commendable on merits of aesthetics and performance alone, I found myself spending most of the run-time waiting for the film to kick into high gear. Protagonist Pi’s story, one of shipwreck, isolation, and spirituality, is a good and compelling one, but not so great as the film’s extended introduction – in which an older Pi, telling his tale to a writer, promises the narrative will make him believe in God – wants us to believe.
But the deftly handled final act pushes Pi’s story much closer to the existentially illuminating level for which it thrives, and the more I think about it, the more I admire and respect everything the film has to offer. Life of Pi presents itself as a story about storytelling, about the ways in which we convey meaning to one another in forms literal and obscure, but it is actually an exploration into the nature of faith and religion, and delivers a remarkably clever and powerful message about how and, more importantly, why humans choose to believe in a higher power. The film is, at heart, a fable, simple and stark in the way it lays out its argument, and though the moment this approach comes into focus will no doubt upset some viewers, I believe the methodical push towards territory of greater emotional and thematic substance is the most essential component of the film’s artistic success.
Though as these are story issues I speak of, I am sure the same could be said of Martel’s book. I have not read it, but one can hardly escape its reputation these days, and it is clear Lee had some potent source material to work with. The question for movie audiences, be they familiar with the novel or not, is whether Life of Pi functions as a uniquely cinematic experience. It does, though I say that with some rather severe reservations.
Lee’s film is structurally unsound, over-reliant on literary framing devices in its first act, distractingly devoid of anything similar in its second, and tonally schizophrenic in its otherwise commendable conclusion. As noted before, the film opens with an older Pi – short for Piscine Molitor Patel – telling his life story to a writer. Lee takes his time exploring Pi’s childhood development, moving through a series of episodic, thematically connected vignettes until the boy reaches adolescence. It is a charming and intriguing stretch of film, but the narrative style too clearly emulates its literary roots, especially when Pi and the writer periodically interrupt to explain or underline the meaning of the moment.
And then, as soon as Pi and his family load themselves and their Zoo full of animals onto a ship bound for Canada, this framing device is abandoned, and old Pi is not seen nor heard from again until the third act. This is the main section of the film, the plot readers and onlookers alike are familiar with, and it makes for decently compelling drama. The ship sinks during a storm, Pi loses his family, and winds up stranded on a lifeboat with only a massive, ferocious Bengal tiger for company.
Lee illustrates Pi’s journey with every ounce of cinematic awe he can muster, but it is still an odd structural choice to take such a sharp-left turn out of the framing device; a great deal of time is spent established the rhythms of narration and interruption in the first act, and abandoning those rhythms as soon as the action gets underway is distracting. I do believe Lee finds a better synthesis of technique, if not tone, in the final portion, but the abrupt return to present-day Pi still causes whiplash, and the structural inconsistencies rob the ending, good as it is on paper, of some of its power.
That being said, one cannot discount the aesthetic triumph of Life of Pi. This is a visually rapturous film, gorgeous, inventive, and lavish at every turn. Lee is nothing if not an impressively daring visual craftsman, and on that count, Life of Pi is one of his greatest accomplishments. He plays with light and color in bold, painterly ways, and as Pi’s journey takes him further and further away from existential reality, Lee shifts between the mundane and fantastic with effortless beauty. I am unconvinced the film needs 3D to enhance its visuals – the stereoscopic effect is technically proficient, but adds little beyond dim colors and distracts more often than not – but that is the only knock I can raise against some of the most spectacular and profound imagery of 2012.
Mychael Danna’s music is equally sensational, and the effects work, while occasionally obvious, is nevertheless impressive. Thanks to the wonders of CGI, the tiger is no mere beast, but a silent character imbued with soul and passion. These are all traits Life of Pi could not offer in book form, for novels lack the aural and visual components unique to film. The same can be said of star Suraj Sharma who, despite having no prior acting experience, does a wonderful job illustrating Pi’s pain, ecstasy, and excitement. A book can, of course, draw characters as well as any narrative medium, but a good performance allows an even deeper window into the soul, and this is what Sharma offers.
Structural issues aside, all this is evidence that Life of Pi does indeed belong on film. Lee has done his job well. I suspect fans of the book shall be more than satisfied by the new dimensions this adaptation offers, and the uninitiated will be treated to a very good, if not quite great, cinematic experience. At the very least, it has an ending and message that I find fascinating, one I look forward to discussing in the days to come. If the film can spark any depth of conversation among audience members, it will have done its job quite well indeed.