Friday, November 30, 2012

Movie Review: "Life of Pi"

Within the first ten minutes, the titular protagonist of Life of Pi, Pi Patel, tells a writer that this story will make one believe in God.  The story that Pi tells, is that of a shipwreck, which claims a teenaged Pi's family.  Amidst the chaos, he found himself the sole human survivor, now floating across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  Part survival story, part rumination about one person's faith and their attempts at understanding why God designed nature to do the things in which it does, Life of Pi is an emotion-filled journey that places the viewer within these events and has them pondering the same questions that the film's lead, newcomer Suraj Sharma, does.

In a great many ways, Life of Pi requires an open mind from its viewers.  It is not a film about one particular religion, as Pi is a combination Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim.  He has always been fascinated by God, whether it be Christ, the many Hindu Gods, or Allah, Pi believes they're all the same.  The film does not ask the viewer to believe this same idea as Pi, his beliefs simply serve as the impetus to understanding the gentle, soul-filled character that is Pi Patel, and understand how a 16-year-old boy could survive not just the elements and starvation, but also a man-eating tiger.

The set up of the film is filled with life and energy, detailing the source of Pi's name, his fascination with religion, and his loss of innocence, before the ship wrecks and the real story begins -- Pi's journey to understand God.  To his immense credit, young actor, Suraj Sharma, manages to hold the film together thanks to his revelatory performance.  Sharma is the heart-and-soul of Life of Pi.  He has a wide range of emotions that make him believable as a teen pondering such large questions, keeping the viewer engaged rather than allowing their attention span to wane.  Which is good, seeing as how Life of Pi gets narratively murky around the midpoint, with some of the confrontations between Pi and nature running together by that point.  Thankfully, the thematic ideas are what I feel that Ang Lee and company want the audience to take away from the film, and the emotions and ideas are so strong, it is very easy to overlook its narrative shortcomings.

Visually, Life of Pi is a marvel.  The animals in the life boat are entirely computer generated, and there are many moments where it is hard to find the glossy edges that CGI leaves behind.  As well, director Ang Lee uses visual effects and the camera's depth of field to create a more immersive, dream-like feel. Almost every shot seems to have been digitally altered to make it seem more unreal, to make the water more reflective, to make the sky more beautiful, or to make dream and reality often collide.  In particular, the way that the camera was always focused on Pi, with most of the other actors out of focus, it really draws one into Pi's state.  However, I cannot figure out why Lee changed the aspect ratio in a few scenes.  There is no evidence in the film itself to suggest why, leaving me confused.  It's only for two scenes, and both are scenes meant to be emotional beats, and yet the film goes from widescreen to fullscreen to letterbox format.  It jars the viewer and takes one out of the filmgoing experience.

All in all, Life of Pi is not perfect, but it was a film I do not regret seeing.  Thanks to a strong performance from Sharma, marvelous effects work, luscious visuals, and a thematic consistency that never falters in affecting the viewer, Life of Pi is a flawed, yet must see film that will be nominated come Oscar night.

I give Life of Pi a B

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