Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi, though undoubtedly a technically-impressive work, left me feeling a little non-plussed. Its simple story is engaging and welcoming, the acting by debutant Suraj Sharma is impressive (especially considering all the blue screen and water tank work he had to undertake) and Lee’s surety of hand is as present and correct as always, yet I doubt I’ll ever want to re-visit this overly-striking, colourful adaptation of Yann Martel’s popular novel; it’s a little like overdoing it with sweets or desserts … kind of enjoyable at the time but you feel nauseous afterwards. Perhaps I’d have been wowed had I seen it in 3D on the big screen – it is widely-recognised as being one of the few films that has given credence to the theory that 3D will be more than a mere flash-in-the-pan – but I’m afraid I could only come up with a slight shrug and a ‘meh’ at the end as I readjusted by staring at a plain white wall. Is it just me?
I must be one of the few people left on Earth that hasn’t actually read Martel’s book, and though I knew beforehand that the story revolves around a boy named Pi Patel (Sharma) who ends up on a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger for company, that was the full extent of my knowledge. It turns out that there isn’t actually much more to Life Of Pi than this brief summation, unless you count the ‘twist’ presented at the end that unnecessarily confirms Pi’s tale – delivered by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to Martel (Rafe Spall) – as a fable. But that’s fine: there is a certain charm to its simplicity, and the Aesop-esque familiarity is somewhat comforting too, if comfort is what you crave.
After a first act set-up – Pi’s family runs a zoo in Pondicherry but dad Santosh (Adil Hussain) makes the decision to relocate the Patels to Canada with animals implausibly in tow – the film’s well-sustained high point arrives with the sudden sinking of the vessel that is transporting them across the Pacific, like a diddy version of the last hour of Titanic condensed into a period of ten minutes. I was completely gripped by this sequence and the action on the lifeboat that follows, with the surviving Pi joined by an orang-utan, a zebra and a hyena. Oh, and the small matter of that big, perma-hungry tiger, who has amusingly been named ‘Richard Parker’ following an earlier clerical error. (Praise for such cleverness, which ensures that we think of the tiger as a human being throughout, should of course be directed towards Martel.)
It’s in the long struggle for survival that follows that Lee and his team – including the visual effect studio Rhythm & Hues, which sadly filed for bankruptcy shortly after the movie was released – excel. The movie was nominated for 11 Oscars, mainly in the technical categories, and it’s certainly worth acknowledging just how insistently vibrant Life Of Pi is. There’s a colourful, Disneyfied look throughout (though not everyone felt Claudio Miranda deserved his win in the Best Cinematography field) and the special effects are as crisp as you’ll see in the present age, but I’m sadly not keen on the saturated, throbbing rendering of the Pacific Ocean and the life that exists below (and occasionally above) the surface. That’s personal taste, of course; I won’t argue against the fact that Lee and his team have applied their chosen style with an unwavering consistency, and admittedly this cartoonish sheen suits the nature of Pi’s fantasy. Clearly the look of the film has appealed to a great number of paying punters, but it’s not for me.
Suraj Sharma worked in front of a blue screen, on board various mechanical rigs in a wave tank, for much of the shoot. The DVD extras – disappointingly light for such a technical marvel, with just a 20-minute featurette included – do a good job of highlighting the difficulties faced by the novice actor: he spent most of his time soaked to the skin, as you would imagine, talking to nothing in particular (although occasionally folks in blue suits did stand in for the missing beasts), and was tossed about quite a lot. It must have been very demanding, physically. Also, it’s crucial that we believe that Pi is in a boat with Richard Parker and the other animals, and this is something Sharma manages to achieve, credibly enough: his eyes never betray the fact there isn’t actually a tiger half a yard away and it looks as if Lee’s guidance was clear and accurate.
I often find that I admire Lee’s films without actually loving them. Usually they look great, but the only one I’ve genuinely enjoyed watching for a second time is The Ice Storm, which probably says more about me and my tastes than anything else, given that it’s one of his most low-key movies to date (I liked Brokeback Mountain, I liked Crouching Tiger, I even liked Hulk…but something’s missing from all of them that I can’t quite put my finger on). The director is certainly an intriguing figure, though, and few have managed to hop between genres or bridge the gap between the disparate styles of the east and the west with quite the same flair or panache. Theoretically I like the idea of his boundary-busting approach, even if the results are mixed, and Life Of Pi is perhaps his most deliberately inclusive film to date: I couldn’t think of a director more suited to this type of story, and it’s no coincidence that the world’s most prominent religions are all namechecked here. The film seeks to suggest that ultimately there are more similarities between the various faiths of the world than differences, and its an admirable message, if a little simplistic. I don’t really want to hate on a director who is trying to use cinema as a force for good, and you could certainly make the argument that we need more of this this kind of attitude in the modern age, but I can’t let it pass without commenting that there’s an inherent cheesiness to such an idealistic approach that makes me squirm uncomfortably after a while.
It’s colourful, it’s designed to be uplifting, it’s technically impressive and it clearly contains the elusive ‘x-factor’ within the two-hour lifespan that has resulted in mass appeal, but for me it’s another Ang Lee film that looks good on the surface but is ever so slight once you delve beyond the visual feast. Nothing wrong with visual feasts, of course, but for me this one’s like an overdose on Sunny Delight and Smarties. To which I have to say: no thanks. It would be nice to be able to applaud it and it would be nice to say it moved me and it would be nice to say I loved it. But … meh.
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: David Magee, Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu
Running Time: 127 minutes