These are the days that try a critics soul. There are many movies that I watch, especially during Award season, where I can recognize the technical and artistic quality but ultimately feel it is not for me and come away feeling a bit cold by the experience. This is what I’ve said about several movies over the last few weeks. Director Ang Lee’s latest film Life of Pi is another such movie.
From a purely technical perspective Life of Pi is at times a very beautiful movie to behold with some really nice imagery. However the pacing of the movie felt a bit off. It had long stretches where not much happened, at times it was boring and preachy. David Magee’s screenplay and the movie is based on Yann Martel’s popular book of the same name. The story about an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck has lots of gripping moments.
Pi’s (Suraj Sharma) unwavering faith in God becomes a primary talking point in the movie. Pi practices three religions at one time and there are numerous discussions about the power of faith and god. The movie eventually becomes preachy (no pun intended) about the topic. The performances were all uniformly good but it is amazing that this is Suraj’s first film. It is a daunting task to have to carry this thing on his shoulders and he is captivating for most of it.
Last year I said the best performance I saw all year was Joey the horse in War Horse. This year’s best performance honors goes to Richard Parker the Tiger. His expressive eyes bore into your soul. You could almost tell exactly what this grand animal was thinking or trying to express. The CGI work here is pretty amazing.
Life of Pi does a good job of establishing the character. We find out all about Pi’s life growing up, how he was picked on for his name being pronounced “Pissing” by the kids. How he eventually shortened it to Pi.
We find out that Pi’s family owned a zoo and he was taught early on to fear tigers. Especially Richard Parker who got that name by accident. To teach Pi a lesson about Richard Parker’s nature his father Santosh (Adil Hussain) ties a goat up to bars and we watch Richard Parker eat it. How the lion got the deer through the bars is a mystery.
The story is told from the point of view of an adult PI (Irrfan Khan) who tells a writer (Rafe Spall) his life’s history. This plot device takes away the suspense because ultimately you know he’s going to survive. The twist at the end of the movie kind of ruins everything that came before. I’m getting real tired of the “did it really happen” meme this season. It’s not clever writing, it is just lazy and annoying.
One of the more spectacular sequences is the sinking of the ship. Ang Lee does an amazing job of creating the tense storm, but somehow it lacks emotional weight because we never got to meet the crew and the ultimate destruction, sinking and death of the crew is all done, basically off camera. We see Pi watching in horror, but we don’t get the impact.
It is not fair to criticize a movie for the marketing campaign. However, folks walking into this expecting a movie etched in fantasy and surrealism will be sorely disappointed. The movie is grounded in “reality.” We get shot after shot of Pi and Richard Parker and the vastness of the ocean. At first these moments are truly beautiful but by the fifth time it is hard to be wowed anymore. All the best visual splendor was spoiled by the trailers.
Life of Pi was a disappointment, but a mild one.
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