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October 06, 2012

Life of Pi — New York Film Festival 2012

Life of PiAng Lee Goes Big
Ocean Survival Story Raises the Bar on Spectacle

Gracefully sidestepping its overreaching, religiously didactic premise — that the unfolding story offers up absolute proof of God — Ang Lee’s lush 3D adaptation of Yann Martel’s restrained novel of magical realism is a stunner. The real joy lies in Lee’s exacting ability to bring a seemingly unfilmable narrative to life. The invisible state-of-the-art special effects represent a game-changer for the film industry. Here we see that big screen spectacle doesn’t have to include explosions or gun battles to immerse an audience in a deeply entertaining experience.

Premiering at the New York Film Festival to critical acclaim, “Life of Pi” follows the survival narrative of an Indian boy named Pi (short for Piscine Molitor, a Parisian swimming pool). Born into a Hindu family, the teenaged Pi dabbles with Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam — much to the dismay of his strict father, who decides to move the family zoo to Canada. A catastrophic storm upends the Japanese freighter containing Pi’s family and their zoo animals. Pi miraculously escapes on a well-equipped lifeboat where a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger vie for precious space. Some fast-track Darwinism whittles the boat’s incompatible passengers down to Pi and the tiger — oddly named Richard Parker. Newcomer Suraj Sharma delivers an astounding performance as the 17-year-old Pi. In what is essentially a one-man acting showcase, Suraj rises to the challenge with exquisite results.

For 227 days, Pi endures an odyssey of subsistence. Every strand of Pi’s mental and physical fortitude is stretched far beyond its limit. Pi must not only build a separate raft to keep a safe distance from the tiger, but he must also strategize about how to provide for himself and the deadly cat. This helps focus his mind. Pi voraciously references the boat’s survival manual to make the best use of the food and materials inside its surprisingly ample hull.

Ang Lee orchestrates the film’s demanding visual, emotional, and thematic elements like a maestro with a carefully honed sense of dynamics. Famous for his abilities to conquer divergent genres — see “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain” — Lee makes a bold artistic statement. Using a trio of different tigers to play Pi’s captive castaway, the filmmaker captures Richard Parker’s fierce moods with intense scenes that make the hair stand up on the back of you neck. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda works brilliantly to give each composition an effortless complexity of narrative purity. Mychael Danna’s original musical score is spot-on, never detracting from the mesmerizing adventure.

“Life of Pi” is not without its flaws. Cutaway sequences to an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) retelling his story to an ingratiating author, tip the film conspicuously to its inspirational intentions. The subordinate plot speaks to a lack of confidence in David Mage’s script construction — preaching rather trusting the audience to take away their own personal truths from the story. Yet the film’s overall effect is an incredibly rich cinematic experience incomparable to anything that has come before.

Not Rated. 120 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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