Thursday, December 6, 2012

Life of Pi Movie Review

I have never agreed with the general sentiment that “the book was better than the movie.” This has always seemed a meaningless assertion to me. Books and movies might set out to accomplish a similar task – telling a story – but the ways they go about it could hardly be less similar. Books have the space to fill in details you can’t possibly bring to light in a film. A reader is privy to setting descriptions, histories, character development and inner thoughts that often can’t be represented on the screen. A movie does the imagining for the viewer. Whereas a book allows a reader to visualize images evoked by the words on the page, a film director, cinematographer, writer, etc., present their personal visualizations, which most likely don’t mesh with yours. What we need to test is whether or not the film adaptation of a book is 1) some sort of faithful adaptation and 2) good on its own terms by the standards laid out through cinema history. It doesn’t matter if the movie tells the same story in the same exact way as the book. All that matters is that the movie works. Does it draw you in? Do you learn enough about the characters to care about their fates? Is the story moving?

I’m more of a movie watcher than a book reader. More often than not, when I read a novel I’ve already seen the film version. I usually find this to be a more enriching and rewarding way of doing things because the book fills in details that were lost on the screen. Of course the downside is you can’t read Pride and Prejudice without picturing Keira Knightley. There are some exceptions to this as when I specifically set out to read a novel that I know has been adapted into a film opening soon. I finished reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi the night before seeing the movie. So it was all fresh in my mind. Perhaps too fresh because I kept anticipating turns that I knew to be coming rather than allow myself to be caught up in the moment.

Ang Lee’s film, adapted by David Magee, begins like the book with an aspiring novelist (Rafe Spall) talking to a middle-aged Indian man – the story’s narrator Pi Patel as an adult – in his home in Winnipeg. Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is supposed to have a fantastic story that will make him believe in God. The scenes with the novelist and the adult Pi have this wide-eyed quality produced by Spall’s performance. Khan is really wonderfully grounded as Pi narrating the early and latter parts of his story. He gives all the background information about his youth, growing up in Pondicherry, India, and living at a zoo that his father owned. Then his family decides to move to Canada, taking many of the zoo animals with them on a cargo ship across the Pacific. Up to this point I was desperately concerned that the centerpiece of the story – Pi’s 227 days spent in a lifeboat on the ocean with nothing but the company of a deadly Bengal tiger – would be consistently interrupted by Khan’s narrating voice and cuts back to Pi’s kitchen in Winnipeg as he gives the details to an unconvincingly enthralled Spall. Mercifully, once the ship sinks and Pi is lost at sea, it is the teenaged Pi who takes over the voiceover work, from a narration laid out in a scattered diary he keeps in the margins of the survival manual that comes as standard issue in the lifeboat.

For the uninitiated, I’ve certainly not given away too much so far. If you’ve seen any commercials or have even seen the novel’s cover art, you’ll know that it’s about a boy lost at sea with a tiger. This is where the story really takes off. I felt the same reading the novel. Through the early chapters I thought I was in for a mystical tale written for a young adult reading level. And the filming of these early scenes, shot by the cinematographer Claudio Miranda, feels at times like a children’s movie. The opening credits feature a who’s who of the zoo animals looking adorably cute in all their three-dimensional glory (a note later on the use of 3D for this film). But the animal aspect is not all Disney cute. When Pi as a child wants to feed the tiger in the zoo, his father abruptly stops him and demonstrates the animal ferocity of the tiger by making the boy witness its mauling of a goat. The lesson is that animals are not friends, not human. They are wild and deadly. This establishes what shaky ground Pi is on when it’s just him and the tiger, named Richard Parker, on the boat.

Pi doesn’t only receive lessons in animal care as a child. He also encounters Vishnu and becomes a Hindu. Then he meets Jesus Christ and practices Christianity before finding Mohammed to usher in his life as a devout Muslim. He finds meaning and peace in all three religions and practices all, much to his father’s consternation. This is a trope in the book I found to be a bit of simplistic moralizing, a facile comment on the sameness of all mankind and the universality of looking for something greater than ourselves in life. Pi practices his religions in India, but it’s not until his journey across the ocean that he can find companionship, salvation, and communion with God’s creatures in all their mystery that he truly understands his relationships with his various Gods.

The early scenes of Pi’s youth, especially those taking place in and around the zoo, have a distinct Wes Anderson vibe to them. You can almost imagine a sudden march of identically dressed zookeepers parading through the set or the emergence on the soundtrack of an old, but not quite forgotten, rock tune from 60s. It’s whimsical, remembered through the eyes of a man who is enamored with the life he had in India before his family was ripped from him in a shipwreck. The scenes on the lifeboat are absolutely remarkable. They are gorgeously conceived and shot using a seamless blend of computer images and the real thing. The tiger is so convincingly rendered I was shocked. If the tiger were not depicted as photorealistic, the movie would lose all its impact. To lose yourself in the middle section of the story, you must believe that Richard Parker is the most ferocious threat any human could face in those circumstances. Here is where the cute and cuddly animal depictions end. It’s to the great credit of Lee that this is decidedly not a Disney tiger. There’s no anthropomorphizing here. This is a vicious man-killer and he’s growing hungry.

Pi’s life at sea is brutal, demanding that he do things he never imagined himself doing. This includes killing fish for food, sucking on the detritus of dead animals, gnawing raw flesh, and eventually trying to train a Bengal tiger. His survival depends on teaching Richard Parker that they have separate territories on the tiny lifeboat. And a bond grows between them, a one-way bond as animals respond to cues, signals, and biology, but not to emotion.

I have remained largely skeptical as to the efficacy of 3D technology in films. Martin Scorsese did an admirable job really employing the third dimension to add to the visual palette of Hugo. There are moments in Life of Pi that are honestly ethereal due in large part to the 3D experience. However, I also felt those moments could have made more and better use of 3D. But those moments of great visual inventiveness are so few and far between that I spent the rest of the time wondering not only why I was wearing uncomfortable glasses, but why I shelled out extra money for it. I got the sense that my enjoyment of the film would have been nearly equal in a traditional format.

Suraj Sharma, making his film debut, is the young actor who plays Pi as a sixteen year old boy. He has a strong presence on the screen and should have a future in movies. The Bollywood actors Adil Hussain and Tabu play his parents and make lasting impression in supporting roles. And Gerard Depardieu makes a brief appearance as the French cook aboard the ship.

The film leaves slightly less ambiguity in the closing scenes than the novel does. We know, as the investigators for the shipping company and the novelist know, that the story is rather unbelievable. The adult Pi has an interesting rejoinder for that and it brings the story round to the beginning and the claim that his tale will make you believe in God. For me, I wouldn’t go so far. It works as a wonderful tale of personal struggle and survival, a young man learning what he’s capable of and how he fits in with God’s creations, but it’s hardly the big revelatory moment I was expecting. It might have worked better had it not been spelled out practically in big block letters. The ending comes off cheap and a little insulting. David Magee would have been wise to add to the novel’s ambiguity rather than dampen it.

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