The suspension of disbelief is a major issue for most filmmakers. Be it a family falling apart or an ordinary citizen turned superhero, a movie scenario must make sure that it successfully sells its ideas, less the viewer decide to reject everything they see. This is especially true in the realm of magic realism, where the unusual is meant to be viewed as routine and the odd seen as significant to the storyline. So it makes little sense that the new offering from Oscar winner Ang Lee, Life of Pi, would try the thwart such sentiment. This is a film that spends 90 minutes trying to convince us that a young boy from India survived 227 days on a lifeboat with an angry, and very hungry, Bengal tiger. In the last 10 minutes, however, it argues (mild spoiler alert) that what we have seen may not have actually happened, and by doing so, it almost destroys the gorgeous fable that came before. Almost.
Our story centers on Pi, otherwise known as Piscine Patel (Ayush Tandon as a boy, newcomer Suraj Sharma as a teen, and Irrfan Khan as an adult), a child growing up in a French-influenced section of Pondicherry. His father runs a zoo, and it is there where the our lead learns several important life lessons. Raised a Hindu, he becomes accepting of both Christianity and Islam as he grows older.
Fearing the political changes in their country, Pi’s family hops a freighter and, with a few animals in tow, emigrate to Canada. A horrible storm sinks the vessel, leaving the young man, a wounded zebra, a crazed hyena, an old orangutan, and a ferocious tiger, adrift. Pi must learn to get along with these creatures less they destroy him. It’s a quest for survival that will see him struggle against the elements while discovering the true nature of God, and man’s often complicated connection to same.
Stunning to look at and difficult to digest, Life of Pi is a nominal New Age tone poem dressed up in sensational digital finery and poised as a slight spiritual awakening. It has none of the emotional heft you’d expect from this kind of tale and yet resonates on the screen in such a way that you literally can’t take your eyes off the visuals. Containing, hands down, the best CG ever in a modern Hollywood film, Lee brings the complicated, some said un-filmable story to life in dazzling, photorealistic terms.
Take Richard Parker, the animal who becomes Pi’s nemesis and uneasy co-castaway. This tiger comes across as totally believable, without a hint of the cartoony animation that seems to spoil many attempts at same. From swimming in the ocean to scowling at Pi, there is never a moment when we don’t believe the circumstances. Thanks to the director’s desire to keep things authentic, an outrageous idea that could easily misfire and turn maudlin takes root in pure reality.
It’s a true artistic triumph. Those his films have often pushed the boundaries of the artform, Lee outdoes himself here. During a sequence involving flying fish, he solidifies a series of outstanding optical wonders. Even during the frightening shipwreck, we get images of amazing visual acuity. Using 3D to its best advantage, Lee manages the same miracle that Martin Scorsese did with Hugo. He makes the otherwise unnecessary cinematic gimmick one of the most important elements of the narrative. It’s not just a question of bringing depth or detail to the story. The added dimension gives us a sense of space, of what Pi must face when dealing with a ravenous animal mere feet away from his flesh. Similarly, situations involving seafaring hardships become even more daunting when given a true positional perspective.
Yes, there are flights of fancy here. A night sequence involving iridescent creatures seems designed solely to put on a pretty light show and a last act visit to a “living” island offers a similar phosphorescent glow. Yet Lee keeps us invested in the story’s forward motion, getting us to the point where an adult Pi can relate his tale to an interested author (Rafe Spall). We wonder what happened, recognize that we relate to our foreign lead and his desire to live. Throughout the running time, we slowly stop thinking that nothing like this could ever happen, that no human being could make peace with a man-eating beast like Richard Parker, let alone make it three-quarters of a year on the open sea. Instead, we are so invested in these characters that, when they finally part, the sorrow is far from sweet.
And then Life of Pi hits the reset button – sort of. When confronted with his survival and the surreal elements surrounding it, our hero recants. Kind of. Instead, he tells a different tale, one featuring fleeting humans (Gerard Depardieu) who we really never got to know beforehand. It’s the kind of glorified “gotcha” that is supposed to sum up everything we’ve seen before in a knowing, revelatory unveiling. Yet such a stunt is antithetical to everything Lee accomplished here. It’s like saying, after several interstellar dogfights, that the entire Star Wars universe was just a figment of a lonely child’s fervent, sci-fi inspired imagination. It’s a telling twist, and a horribly unnecessary one. You’ll either buy it in total (fans of the novel by Yann Martel will more than likely expect it) or it will take you completely out of the film. There is no middle ground.
Still, for its undeniable visual splendor, Life of Pi is a success. It takes the aging artform to places past masters could only dream of. Pushing technology to the very edges of its still developing digital boundaries, this is a benchmark to which other wannabe auteurs will have to strive. Destined to be a bigger hit internationally than in an always wary West, it purports to prove the existence of a Higher Power, albeit it one with a decidedly warped sense of substance. After all, if you’re going to take time to prove something fantastical is also 100% true, while tweak that in the end? Why not let us believe the story we want. Of course, that is the final sentiment shared by Pi upon reflection. It’s a statement this movie didn’t need to make. We were convinced. Now, we’re just confused.