Spirituality on film is a tricky thing to get right; try to push your message too hard and audiences will walk out of the theater feeling manipulated (I’m looking at you Passion of the Christ!), but stay too vague and no one will get the point. Unless you find the balance between the two, any film that tries to explore faith is bound to crash and burn. Fortunately, Ang Lee’s gorgeous and mesmerizing new film, Life of Pi, manages to find the perfect middle ground and avoid the pitfalls that most faith based movies fall into thanks to stunning visuals, a great story, and masterful direction.
Based on Yann Martel’s best selling novel, Life of Pi tells the story of Pi Patel, the son of an Indian zookeeper in Pondicherry, India. Pi is an extremely curious kid who is obsessed with the idea of religion and God. He simultaneously practices Islam, Christianity, and Hindu, due to their different interpretations of faith and life. However, Pi has to leave India after his family decides it’s too dangerous due to political unrest. They board a cargo ship bound for Canada with all of the animals from their zoo, and after a tremendous storm, Pi is left to fend for himself on a 26-ft lifeboat alongside a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
It’s impossible to talk about Life of Pi without immediately diving into the visuals of the film. I’ll be the first to admit that I was initially extremely skeptical about Life of Pi, for it’s trailer made it seem like an overblown, pretentious CGI-fest, with nothing more going for it than some pretty images and Ang Lee’s name. However, after seeing the film, I’m happy to proclaim that I was completely wrong, and while it heavily relies on CGI, Ang Lee fantastically uses the technology naturally to enhance the story rather than distract the audience from its inherent flaws. When used correctly, CGI can allow filmmakers to make the impossible, to fully flesh out the parts of their vision that would be impossible to achieve by any other means, and the visuals in this movie are so fantastic and euphoric that it simply couldn’t have been made without the help of computer generated images.
A perfect example of this is the tiger Richard Parker. While some might scoff at the fact that they didn’t use a real life tiger for the majority of the film, it clearly would have been impossible to train and film a tiger in this situation. The tiger’s movements and actions are so specific and threatening that it would have been dangerous to use an actual tiger on set. Lee manages to circumvent this problem by using a CGI tiger for the majority of the film, and the decision pays off in spades. I typically pride myself on my ability to distinguish CGI from practical effects, and in all honesty, for a good portion of the shots I couldn’t tell whether Richard Parker was real or not, which is saying a lot. This movie will serve as a stepping-stone in terms of digital effects, and will live on as a perfect example of how to effectively use CGI to enhance the story.
While many are very outspoken about their disdain for the third dimension, I am one of the few believers that, when used correctly and for the right reason, 3D can enhance a movie going experience. While the majority of the time it’s used simply as a gimmick, Ang Lee manages to use 3D to draw you into the story and place you on the boat with Pi and Richard Parker. He doesn’t just throw objects at the screen, but instead, he uses 3D to flesh out the surroundings and make you feel like a participant in the story.
Aside from the visuals, Life of Pi succeeds by the merits of its story alone. The story of one man’s test of faith isn’t necessarily original material, but Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee manage to tell a familiar story in a very natural and universal way. The film isn’t about a specific religion or a specific dogma, but simply the idea of faith and believing in the unbelievable and a higher power. It deals with questions that everyone has asked at some point in their life, and therefore it has a very wide reaching appeal, and it doesn’t try and force its point down your throat, but rather lets you decide what to believe. It’s a brilliant choice, one that feels authentic and deserved. While a lot of the credit has to go to novelist Yaan Martel, Magee and Lee do a masterful job of translating his story and themes onto the big screen, especially when the middle of the film contains almost no dialogue. Lee makes the smart choice to let that portion of the story breathe and play out naturally. He masterfully shows rather than tells. While there is voiceover narration, Lee makes the right decision to nix the voiceover and allow Richard Parker and Pi’s battle for survival play out visually for the majority of their time on the boat.
That being said, the film’s first and last act relay a little too heavily on the previously mentioned voiceover, to the point where it can be a distracting and detracts from those sections of the film. There were a few times where the voiceover felt completely unnecessary, and felt like it went out of its way to explain certain situations too perfectly in order to ensure that the audience understood the scene.
Nonetheless, Life of Pi is an incredible achievement, a technical marvel, and, most importantly, a beautiful story about faith and survival, one that is sure to be a serious contender this Oscar season and for good reason. With his latest, Ang Lee once again proves that he is one of the best and most adaptable directors working today. While it isn’t without a few minor problems, Life of Pi manages to surpass the lofty expectations that come with an Ang Lee film, and will forever serve as a benchmark in the marriage of CGI, 3D, and storytelling.
Article by James Hausman