Life of Pi is not entirely about a boy and his tiger; but there is a lot about a boy and a tiger, and if you don’t like adventure tales, this is not the film for you.
If technique were everything, the film — whose 3D wonders including a stormy shipwreck and the most lifelike CGI animal ever – would be a masterpiece. It proves yet again that Ang Lee is a master filmmaker, whose works range from the beautiful and eloquent (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Age) to the overrated (yes, Brokeback Mountain.) Pi is impressive without being as consequential as its director’s pedigree and its Oscar-bait timing suggest.
Taking a realistic approach to a fabulist story, the film offers a rich, satisfying buildup. Rafe Spall, as a would-be writer in Canada, is hearing the story from the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), who recalls his boyhood in India. As we see it in the film’s most charming, beautiful sequences, Pi’s family owned a zoo. Their acquisitions included a Bengal tiger who, because of a bureaucratic mix up, arrived with the name Richard Parker. The tiger is a magnificent-looking creature but, as Pi’s father teaches him, he’s a predator, not a lamb-like pet.
When the family and the zoo are shipwrecked on the way to Canada, it’s off to the FX, and the central part of the film begins. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat with the tiger — and for a time a sick zebra and a vicious hyena. Yann Martel’s hugely best-selling novel could only have imagined the vibrant scenes that Ang Lee creates: brutal sun, star-filled nights, countless dolphins and the wary distance that Pi — nearly starving and parched — must keep from the hungry tiger, even while trying to tame him. As the adolescent Pi, Suraj Sharma captures his determination to survive, building a raft to keep him safe from the tiger, catching fish and tossing the odd one to Richard Parker. Those details work in a Call of the Wild kind of way, but we spend a loooong time at sea.
Despite his humanized name and lifelike presence, Richard Parker never becomes a character, which is very a good thing. The animal never becomes touchy-feely cute, which offers a clue to the tough realities beneath a surface that becomes increasingly fantastic – there’s a magical island so full of meerkats it looks like the ground is restlessly moving.
Those darker truths only surface near the end when the adult Pi resumes his story, and it turns out that Pi wants to be more than an adventure film, an ambition it doesn’t pull off. The film is pointedly about what we choose to believe, which mythical stories we put our faith in. The theme is not delivered as treacly spiritualistic mumbo-jumbo, so we can be thankful for that small favor. But it does come as a twist, and the more realistic stories before and after Pi’s ordeal at sea make the film feel like a disjointed triptych.
It’s easy to see why Pi was such a solid choice for the New York Film Festival’s opening night, though: it has impeccable artistic credentials, is easy-going and unchallenging. But it’s not a film you fall in love with. At his best Ang Lee can make films that knock you over emotionally; Life of Pi just isn’t one of them.