'Life of Pi' scores with stunning visuals

Suraj Sharma in "Life of Pi." SOURCE 20TH CENTURY FOX
December 2, 2012

Here is one claim that I’m fairly certain I can make about “Life of Pi”: You will not see a more stunningly captivating film this year. Every detail of director Ang Lee’s fairy tale is so rich and textured, you could click off the sound and be locked into its staggering beauty.

Narratively, it’s never quite as textured in its goals. The film frames itself like a Buddhist “The Prince Bride,” in which a writer is curious to hear the life story of one Piscine Patel (the older version is played by Irrfan Khan) who, as a youth, led a colorful life back home in India. He shortened his name (French for “pool”) to Pi after taunts over the pronunciation of his full name. And while he ultimately won his classmates’ approval, Pi was not a child satisfied with the status quo, as he consumed various religions (Hindu, Christianity, Islam) in search of life’s deeper meaning.

His life at home is also far from ordinary, as his father (played by Adil Hussain) converts their property into a public zoo, populated with a number of beasts from the surrounding wild. Tough times force the family to sell the zoo and move to Canada, but en route, the ocean liner carrying the family and all the animals runs into rough waters and capsizes, forcing Pi into a life raft. He’s far from alone, though, as he is joined by an injured zebra, hyena, orangutan and, most importantly, a Bengal tiger.

The tiger, named Richard Parker (one of the film's most amusing recurring jokes), has been an object of fascination for Pi since he was first brought to the zoo. Despite his father’s wishes, Pi desired to connect with the beast, swearing the animal had a soul. It is this belief that drives Pi to survive a 200-plus-day sea odyssey in the tiny boat with Richard Parker.

Try to imagine “Cast Away” where Wilson could maul Tom Hanks’ character at any given moment.

The two films share the simplicity of isolation, but “Pi” plays in the field of fantasy, opening it up to a world in which the ocean can be enhanced to become a glowing, watery stage (thanks to a school of bioluminescent jellyfish), a prism of the universe, or host of a meerkat-run island that looks like a live-action “Madagascar” setting. Thankfully, we are never privy to talking beasts (though I must admit, more than once I expected James Earl Jones to grumble a line or two as the majestic tiger).

Yet for all the beauty on display to adore, “Pi” was a difficult film to actually absorb. It seeks profundity, but frames the high-seas tale with such a plodding, obvious device that not only slows down momentum, but also makes absolutely, positively sure the audience understands it all, like a magician inviting his audience onstage during his performance to witness every illusion.

We are forced to stare at a journalist who wants to write the now-adult Pi’s tale as he reacts to every word with a blank stare that does absolutely nothing for the film or its momentum. If that were not enough, we have to have Pi graphically tell us this metaphorical journey all over again, but in all its realism-grounded glory.

It’s ironic, really, that a film that espouses spiritual fulfillment is actually more concerned with its outer beauty than what’s going on underneath.