Courtesy of Rhythm and Hues
The story itself does not matter. It’s the act of storytelling itself that brings people together.
This sentiment is at the heart of director Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” a beguiling, bewildering and occasionally frustrating film about a young boy named Pi who survives a shipwreck, lives with a tiger on a rickety raft and recounts his story to an aspiring writer during the film’s slightly unwieldy two hours.
While “Life of Pi,” based on a 2001 bestselling novel by Yann Martel, is undeniably beautiful with occasional moments of visual transcendence, its appeal is challenging and its subtlety questionable.
Following a delightful opening montage featuring a mélange of beautifully realized zoo animals, the movie establishes its framing device. A struggling author (Rafe Spall, “Prometheus”) arrives at the doorstep of a kindly man named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan, “The Amazing Spiderman”), claiming that Pi’s friend promised that a story from Pi’s childhood would confirm the author’s belief in God.
The conversation between these two men frames the central narrative, in which young Pi earns his arithmetic nickname, explores his father’s zoo and survives the aforementioned shipwreck along with many of his fellow zoo animals. As Pi, now a teenager (Suraj Sharma, an impressively charismatic young newcomer) becomes increasingly desperate for food and basic comfort in the middle of the ocean, he forges an unexpectedly complex companionship with his fearsome tiger companion Richard Parker. (The tiger’s anthropomorphized name is one of several sources of welcome comic relief.)
With an estimated budget of $120 million, “Life of Pi” is a triumph of sweeping design, vibrant colors and compelling landscapes. The animals feel tactile and genuinely threatening, and the vast, lonely seascapes are gorgeously realized. The visual design also complements the story’s overall sense of dreamy surrealism. In the film’s standout sequence, a fearsome storm topples an enormous ship, tossing the characters across the gargantuan waves. Lee makes these events feel suspenseful and high-stakes without compromising the sequence’s coherence.
Possibly by design, the movie never looks particularly lifelike, in keeping with the idea that fiction or nonfiction, stories are moving on a fundamental level. Even the 3-D, while hardly necessary and characteristically clunky as well, occasionally provides a depth that elevates the movie’s grandeur.
“Life of Pi” also has ambitions beyond the purely aesthetic, but those elements are less satisfying. The dialogue occasionally sounds overly thematic, leaving a slight aftertaste of “touchy-feely” sentiment. In particular, the scenes between Khan and Spall seem obviously designed for maximum sentimental appeal, but they seem forced, partially because the author’s character is essentially a cipher.
Meanwhile, the central theme of storytelling as therapy suffers from a conclusion that seems to rush an important plot point involving a deceptive speech that Pi delivers to a pair of Japanese interviewers. By the end, the film feels like a bountiful visual feast coupled with a slightly perfunctory contemplation of spirituality and mythmaking.
Nonetheless, the film’s achievements are noteworthy. Only a director with a particular skill could make an hour of a boy sitting on a boat with a tiger into an exciting spectacle. With its solemn pace and occasional bouts of tedium, the filmmakers successfully avoid the temptation to transform this children’s fable into a sophomoric “laugh riot.” If only the script by David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) were tighter, the movie might have seemed less flabby and more substantial.
During the movie’s quietest scenes of human-animal interaction and spectacle, though, “Life of Pi” is transporting in exactly the way that adult Pi says stories should be. It’s thrilling and seems to mean something, but we don’t know what. And it doesn’t matter.