Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a crowd-pleaser, in the very best sense of that phrase — which is often turned pejoratively. To be sure, Lee’s story (adapted by David Magee from Yann Martel’s bestseller) deals in matters that a lesser filmmaker might’ve slathered together into sentimental claptrap: leaving one’s home, losing one’s family, near-death experiences, bonds forged, faith questioned. These are, to put it mildly, easily manipulated elements. But doing it this well, working an audience’s emotions without showing the strings, is not an easy task. Lee is up to it.
He uses a clean, classical, three-act structure. In the first, we meet young Pi (first played by Ayush Tandon, then Suraj Sharma) in his homeland of India, where he is raised, improbably enough, in a zoo. (It’s owned and operated by his family.) As a young boy, he is fascinated by matters of faith, equally devoted to the tenants of Hinduism, Catholicism, Christianity, and Islam, and the film’s handling of his religious journey is surprisingly thoughtful and nuanced for a big-budget studio 3D movie. (There’s a whole scene where they just talk about it. Honest!) “Faith is a house with many rooms,” young Pi insists, but his innocence is shaken by a harrowing encounter with one of the zoo’s tigers. Correction: it’s less about the tiger than his father’s choice to place a goat in front of said tiger, to teach his son a lesson about the true nature of these animals he loves.
No prizes for guessing that’s a lesson that will be revisited in act two. Out of money, the family leaves India for the greener pastures of Canada, setting sail (along with several of their animals, who will be sold in North America) in a Japanese cargo ship. But a terrible storm hits, and Pi barely escapes the sinking ship on a lifeboat — along his old tiger friend, named Richard Parker (long story). Obviously, going from a sinking ship and sharing a lifeboat with a hungry tiger may be a matter of delaying the inevitable. But the film is patient with their relationship, detailing its progression from fear to acceptance to trust; the skill with which Lee puts us in that boat with them is remarkable.
And the rendering of Richard Parker is awe-inspiring. This is one big, beautiful cat, and those who haven’t read or seen the film’s promo materials will surely wonder how they find such a well-trained tiger. Surprise — for most of the film, we’re looking at a fully computer-generated animal, with only occasional shots of the real thing (four tigers were photographed, but mostly for reference). It’s not just that we believe him, though; it’s that the digital manipulation has allowed Lee and his brilliant technicians to create an actual performance, as counter-intuitive as that might sound. He’s really reacting to Pi, and Sharma engages with him beautifully (especially considering that he played most of their scenes against empty air).
The integration of computer-generated locations and landscapes aren’t always as convincing (the whale attack is particularly cartoonish), but that’s acceptable — cinematographer Claudio Miranda lets the more fanciful shots and locations contribute to the overall storybook feel. If there’s a complaint to register, it is a structural one. Magee uses our old nemesis the Unnecessary Framing Device to allow Pi’s older incarnation (nicely played by Infan Khan) to narrate the tale; it’s mostly a distraction, especially since it disappears entirely during the long section in which younger Pi narrates himself (via his lifeboat journal). Dueling narrators are never a good sign, particularly when they’re the same person.
The weakness of that element softens the impact of the ending a bit, though the warmth and sensitivity on display is impossible to deny — particularly when Lee undercuts and underplays the climax we’ve been waiting for, and somehow, in doing so, manages the make the moment even more powerful. It’s rare to find a film that can work the entire emotional spectrum the way Life of Pi does — hell, the way it manages to in a single sequence like the tempest on the ship, which swings from gripping scares to tragic beauty to crushing despair, all in the space of about five minutes. That scene is like a little decathlon of filmmaking from Lee, who has done something seemingly impossible: he’s made a big canvas epic on a grand scale, but also a gracious take on the power of storytelling, and of faith.
Life of Pi is out today in wide release. Also wide today: the terrific Silver Linings Playbook, while Hitchcock, The Central Park Five, and Rust and Bone open in limited release. All are worth seeing this weekend, since you’ll be hearing a lot about in them in the weeks to come.