Mystically ambitious and marvellously flawed, Life of Pi is an artistic blockbuster, a riot of saturated colour and delirious imagination, a curious juxtaposition of the mundane and the majestic. Lacking a sorely-needed spin of lyric delirium, Pi – still a step up from last week’s Cloud Atlas – is wondrous to see, not wondrous to feel.
Told in flashbacks, Pi, a 16-year-old religious integrationist who practices Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in his quest to “follow God,” is shipwrecked with his family on the way from India to Canada. A crew member throws him a lifeboat, which is taken over by various zoo animals, including a tiger named Richard Parker, after which Pi spends 227 days at sea.
Published in 2001, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same title was instantly deemed unfilmable. Defying the odds, talented Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) blows the source material – adapted by David Magee (Finding Neverland) – into an adult adventure fable that’s amazingly photographed and mildly engaging, but a bit stagnant and underwhelming from the man who made us weep with Ennis del Mar.
Life of Pi has the clean simplicity of a myth; Life of Pi overelaborates. The framing device of the older Pi (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire) recounting his story to the novelist is excessively intrusive and thereby distracting. Richard Parker might just be the most convincing CG animal ever conceived, but newcomer Suraj Sharma doesn’t have sufficient acting chops to hold the screen opposite a tiger for 70 minutes. The setup is trudging and the closing is pat.
Yet the middle act is a riveting fantasia of cinema, wherein Lee paints an oft-wordless picture of nature’s harshness and grace. As an exploration of what can be accomplished with 3D technology, Life of Pi is beguilingly beautiful and filled with gorgeous imagery: a mirror-like sea reflecting golden clouds; an island bristling with meerkats; a breaching whale glowing with bioluminescence. Claudio Miranda’s luminous camera, set to Mychael Danna’s intoxicating score, captures all manner of wild delights, including a kaleidoscopic, Kubrickian dream sequence, with fauna and cosmos morphing into maternal visions.
Life of Pi poses as a profound experience, but it’s more like a pretty postcard. The sameness of the voice-over narration and Pi’s survivalist escapades grow tedious, even as the special effects continue to dazzle. The film can’t be dismissed because there’s too much on the table, and it can’t be embraced because it’s spread too thin. Ironically, it glides when it confines itself to the terrestrial; when it grasps for the celestial, it fumbles.
Visually spellbinding and thematically pedantic, Life of Pi is the cinematic equivalent of seven courses of cake: delicious and empty-caloried. No other 2012 film so outweighs its shortcomings with breathtaking pageantry. As a ravishing spectacle that treads judiciously on the infinite line between what’s possible and impossible, it leaves your head whirling without gratification.