Talk about lofty goals.
"Life of Pi," director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel, frames itself as the ultimate spiritual, religious adventure. Early on in the film, a character even states that he wants to hear a story that "will make you believe in God." If that wasn't enough, the movie's 3-D is supposed to revive audiences' pre-"Clash of the Titans" love for the gimmick. I don't know which feat would be more impressive.
So does "Life of Pi" have the emotional power to turn the religiously dubious into the devout? Eh, unlikely. Will it restore people's faith in 3-D? Possibly. If there's one thing that's undoubtedly confirmed after seeing Piscene Molitor Patel's sea-based saga, though, it's that Ang Lee is an outrageously talented and inventive visual director.
After setting the stage with a few stories about his unique name, school days and childhood religious experimentation, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells a struggling author (Rafe Spall, previously seen talking cutesy with a deadly alien snake in "Prometheus") his epic tale of survival.
In his story, teenage Pi (impressive newcomer Suraj Sharma) miraculously survives a violent ship sinking while moving from India to Canada with his family. He, as well as a few exotic animals from his family's zoo, find their way onto a lifeboat, but after a sad series of events, only Pi and a beautiful but ravenous Bengal tiger are left alive. Together, the two must learn to survive the elements, hunger, mysterious islands and each other to pass this fierce test of faith.
Most of what ensues consists only of Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker due to a clerical error, floating out on the lonely sea. It sounds like it has the potential to be a bore, but Lee fills the adventure with gorgeous and vibrant images that keeps viewers excitedly anticipating what surreal imagery they'll see next.
A sinking ship's lights hauntingly illuminate the world under the ocean's surface. The lifeboat looks like it's floating in the midst of a vast, mesmerizing emptiness; the horizon is a mere myth. A school of jellyfish gives the night a florescent glow. The word visionary gets tossed around a lot nowadays when talking about directors (Zack Snyder and Sam Raimi have both dubiously received the title), but after "Life of Pi," Lee proves he's one of the few who deserve it.
The 3-D adds a surprising depth to Lee's already rich visuals. In fact, it's so immersive that it's easy to take it for granted. Things aren't popping out or shouting "look at the 3-D!" at the audience. Instead, it makes the ocean feel even more vast and the lifeboat even more alone.
There are a few moments where the gimmick missteps, most notably during a siege of flying fish where it abruptly adds letterboxing (that's not good 3-D; that's cheating). I wouldn't say you have to see it in 3-D; it's not like "Avatar" where if you see it 2-D, you're getting a worse movie. But overall, it's an impressive addition that won't have you feeling buyer's remorse for the $3 upcharge.
Lee is almost as capable with the film's story as he is with the magical visuals. "Life of Pi"'s story takes the audience through a lot, starting with Pi's charming childhood experiences, a short-but-sweet romance and then finally hitting the open seas. There, all sorts of intense moments – namely a shipwreck that could give "Titanic" a run for its money and the suspenseful interactions with the increasingly hungry Richard Parker – take place. All the while, religious debates, discussions and frustrations arise, all well presented and intriguing, even when the visuals aren't busy wowing the audience.
The only unfortunate thing is that, for a journey so entrenched in spirituality, survival and uplift, it's rather emotionally distant. Pi's story just never hits the soul as strongly as it should. A large chunk of the problem is the "Big Fish/Curious Case of Benjamin Button"-esque frame story, which not only spoils the ending but just isn't all that interesting. Why would I want to watch these two regular guys chat when there's an epic tale of survival going on?
It's too bad because Khan, a veteran Indian actor previously seen in bit roles in "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Slumdog Millionaire," is very good, expressing the kind of happiness and sadness that such an experience would create. He seems even better when compared to Spall, who says every line with the kind of "Aw, shucks" wonder that can make "Life of Pi" seem a bit too pleased with itself.
Admittedly, though, if I looked as beautiful and as dazzling as "Life of Pi," I'd be pretty impressed with myself, as well.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published May 29, 2015
As you might unfortunately predict, the new "Poltergeist" doesn't have the muster to pull it off living up to the expectations of its name. It's a fine, admirable attempt, but it's also one that never gets around to providing much of a reason for its existence.
Published May 28, 2015
On the eve of the release of their second album, "Fragments," OnMilwaukee.com sat down with Karen Muehlbauer, Ignacio Catral and Keith Bauer of the Milwaukee-based indie rock band The Violet Hour to chat about their significant change in musical direction, the new album, their affinity for ping pong and how one of them is secretly a Sarah McLachlan fan.
Published May 26, 2015
The origins of the Spare Change Trio probably sound like something you've heard a variation of before. What you may not have heard before in the Milwaukee music scene, however, is something quite like the Spare Change Trio's sound - a mix of jam-happy reggae roots rock with a dash of something from Down Under: a didgeridoo.
Published May 25, 2015
Comedy sequels typically serve as an invitation for disappointment. There are a few exceptions (see: the meta mayhem of last summer's "22 Jump Street"), and thankfully the minorly flawed but majorly funny "Pitch Perfect 2" slides in amongst them.
Published May 25, 2015
The Blake Lively romantic drama "The Age of Adaline" feels like a fairy tale - an incredibly pretty one at that - but told like a lab report.
Published May 14, 2015
The new Sundance-approved Jack Black high school reunion comedy "The D Train" is a darkly oddball mix of laughs and drama simultaneously amusing and cringe-inducingly awkward. So ... pretty much just like my high school days all over again.
Published May 14, 2015
Located in Hales Corners, the W. Ben Hunt Cabin is much more than simply an old rustic locale. It's a lived-in museum to an era long gone, as well as a tribute to an incredible man who predicted the future, turned his hobby into history and did his best to keep some of our nation's earliest traditions from disappearing and merely collecting dust in the past.
Published May 11, 2015
Monday evening, Ald. Tony Zielinski held a community meeting in order to address the recent rumors and speculation concerning the potential sale of At Random - in addition to five other buildings held by the same owner - and to take community input concerning the neighborhood bar.
Published May 10, 2015
"Hot Pursuit" isn't a particularly strong film, and admittedly there's not much of a rousing defense to be made for it (get that pull quote ready for the ad campaign!). But there is one element - and a fairly significant one at that - in the movie's corner: Reese Witherspoon. I will go to bat for her delightfully bright eyed performance here, one that serves as just enough of a sparkplug to almost single-handedly get this tired comedic vehicle where it's going.
Published May 6, 2015
2003's "Big Fish" is a sweet and delightful - and not just because it's one of the few times this side of the millennium you could honestly say, "I enjoyed a Tim Burton movie." Now First Stage will attempt to bring Burton's signature oddball visuals and "Big Fish" author Daniel Wallace's imagination-rich book to live, musical life on stage. In charge is director Jeff Whiting, who chatted with us about bringing tall tales - and taller giants - to life.