editors’ note: The second page of this review contains spoilers.
While giving me a tour of his Los Angeles studio, a special-effects buff once told me that Michael Bay, that jejune doyen of brutish disaster flicks, has a tendency to respond to all problems “by commissioning bigger explosions.” This is not a trap into which Life of Pi’s director, Ang Lee, is ever likely to fall.
Lee is far from a one-trick pony. His past work includes Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the gay-cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain, and the smash-hit action movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and for his latest movie, Life of Pi, he has drawn on the variety of this experience. The result is an aesthetically coruscating yet story-focused action movie that never becomes gratuitous, never reaches stupidly for a quick win, and — most important — never breaks its own internal logic.
To its great credit, Life of Pi is everything that Avatar was not, and, in being so, it adroitly demonstrates that it is possible to produce a visually dazzling film without having to dispense with storytelling. That Pi manages to do this in 3D — which usually I loathe as a gimmick but which here is used judiciously — is further testament to Lee’s achievement. All told, I can count 20 or 30 films that have tried defectively to tread this path. It is a pleasure finally to find one that succeeds.
Adapted from Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, Life of Pi owes a great deal to Rudyard Kipling. In India, a biographer wrote, Kipling found his “way into the old walled city to sense the mystic atmosphere of that colourful land and its ancient people.” So, too, has Martel. To get an idea of what the film is like, imagine if Kipling and Hemingway had written Castaway together and then had the end result filtered through Walt Disney’s Fantasia. Pi is a glittering, electric spectacle that teems with the tense charms of magical realism.
“Our electric lights,” Kipling wrote of a chemist’s shop,
set down low in the windows before the tun-bellied Rosamond jars, flung inward three monstrous daubs of red, blue, and green, that broke into kaleidoscopic lights on the faceted knobs of the drug-drawers, the cut-glass scent flagons, and the bulbs of the sparklet bottles.
Like Martel, Lee has inherited this faculty for turning the quotidian into the thaumaturgic. Everything sparkles; everything’s striking; everything is just slightly off kilter — always the most potent way to create unease. For once, the relationship between the special effects and the story sits the right way about: Pi’s team plainly started with a desire to turn Martel’s tale into a movie, and only then turned to the question of how to make that happen. “I’m dramatically trained, not visually trained,” Lee told the New York Times. The question, then: “How can we put a boy and a tiger on a stranded boat for an extended period of time?” The answer: “Special effects.” Alas, all too often the obverse is true; the question being, “How can we make a film that is full of impressive special effects?” and the answer, “Find a lousy story.” Evidently, Life of Pi would have been impossible to make even ten years ago. Now, technology allows a film in which “the world is awake, and the clouds are aglow.” Of Avatar one might claim the same thing, but in Life of Pi there is an engaging world to wake up and there are dashing clouds to illuminate — and this makes all the difference.
The film’s cast is small and — heretofore, at least — largely undistinguished. Lee deliberately hired mostly unknown actors in order to avoid importing well-known faces into Martel’s foreign universe — Tobey Maguire was fired at the last minute in order to maintain this disjunction. This serves the movie well. For all its effects, it is heavily reliant on its human performances, particularly that of star Suraj Sharma, who has quite literally never appeared in anything — anything! — before. In his title role, Sharma is utterly believable, which is important given that for most of the movie he’s the only person on screen. Way to make an entrance into Hollywood, Suraj, although what to do next will be tricky . . .
So small is the cast that the second-most-important member doesn’t actually exist at all. Richard Parker, the fully grown Bengal tiger with which Pi ends up stranded in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — the Shere Khan to Pi’s Mowgli, one might say — is almost entirely rendered in CGI. I know this because I have read it stated in an interview, not because it is obvious — it is most certainly not. While the film’s aesthetic has a touch of the cartoon about it, this does not extend to the various animals, which are flawlessly realistic. Do a quick Internet search for “Are the animals real in Life of Pi?” and you’ll see what a stellar job the effects team has done.
[Spoiler alert!] All that having been said, Life of Pi is not without its problems. The ending is too blunt, and it both unnecessarily spells out the underlying mysticism that is the story’s guiding light and makes hard the tale’s soft endorsement of faith. The film’s denouement should serve to outline the fable’s open questions, not to answer them; instead, it rams Pi’s metaphor down the throats of an audience that will be hard pressed not to have noticed it by the ninth or tenth minute. Further, the tone of Pi’s eventual revelation — which is somewhat attenuated in the book — ultimately works against the viewer. I wanted to believe Pi’s fable; I had been convinced that I should believe Pi; but, at the last moment, my belief was taken away from me. As the Wizard of Oz doesn’t reveal his fictions — that is left to another character — neither should Pi.
This, however, is not enough to ruin it. Kipling again, in The Threshold:
They found one Breath in all things,
That moves all things between.
They proved one Matter in all things —
Eternal, changeless, unseen.
All its glowing mysticism aside, this, in essence, is the film’s message. As a child, Pi is chastised by his father for holding the naïve belief that a tiger might be capable of romance. Sentiment, he is told, is a uniquely human quality. Yet, despite the dire straits in which he eventually finds himself — spending months aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — Pi refuses to let go of his earlier conceit. Summoning unknown reserves of courage and ingenuity, he helps to keep the tiger alive and eventually finds a way peacefully to coexist with it; when hunger forces the vegetarian Pi to kill a fish, he apologizes profusely to its corpse before sharing its meat; and he soon comes to see himself and Richard Parker as being, literally, “in the same boat.” “If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker,” Pi says, rendering the tiger as both a crutch and a threat. By the time that Pi and Richard Parker reach dry land Pi has acquired both a responsibility for the tiger and a respect for the power of nature. And he is ready — and content, even — to die in the pursuit of both.
There is a risk inherent to the story that might best be summed up with the old line that “to believe in everything is to believe in nothing.” As a child, Pi invites consternation from his parents by following Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism simultaneously. As an adult, he admonishes those whose rationalist instinct leads them to consider only “dry, yeastless factuality.” Contrarily, Pi’s focus is on storytelling: “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” he promises the viewer. Whether it does or not is perhaps irrelevant. It makes you believe in stories — and in Hollywood, that’s all that really matters.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.