The big movie studios still face a challenge in attempting to convince audiences that 3D is anything more than a fad. Half assed efforts like those from hack director Paul W.S. Anderson, or worse, terrible attempts to post-convert 2D films into 3D, certainly don’t lend the process much legitimacy. And yet there are a few films that show what 3D technology can look like when employed by an expert craftsman—Avatar, Prometheus, and Hugo were all worth seeing in theaters just for the visual spectacle. Those films proved that 3D could be more than a gimmick, that 3D may eventually become as indispensable to the filmmaking process as color cinematography or sound. Ang Lee’s visually striking adaptation of Life of Pi joins this small yet distinguished company. Life of Pi is a poetic, somewhat inert feature that is entirely worth seeing in theaters if just to see how gorgeously Ang Lee employs 3D technology.
Those who are familiar with the marketing push behind the film may identify Life of Pi as the Disney-esque tale of the Indian boy stranded in a life raft with a Bengal tiger. While a good chunk of the film’s running time is devoted to boy and tiger overcoming obstacles at sea, however, Life of Pi is significantly deeper than the typical Disney fare. Told through the framing device of a middle aged man giving his life’s story to a young novelist, the film follows the spiritual journey of boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma) as he emerges into adulthood. Pi’s adventure at sea, following the destruction of a cargo ship carrying him and his family from India to Canada, is a metaphor for his acceptance of and belief in God. The tiger is there to make a story about a teenage boy’s spiritual journey watchable.
I’ve developed a tendency to bemoan the rampant abuse of computer generated imagery in Hollywood, particularly in the realms of action and horror, but Life of Pi is one of those rare movies that would have been utterly unfilmmable without the expert use of CG. The co-star of the film, a tiger named Richard Parker, is mostly a digital creation; and it’s a convincing creation.
While some of the shots in the film utilize a live tiger, most of Suraj Sharma’s work in the movie involves him reacting to an empty boat. And of course it makes sense that the only method of telling the story of a teenager stranded on a life raft with a man-eating beast would be through the use of CG trickery. What’s surprising, however, is that shots of real animals used in this movie are virtually indistinguishable from the digital animals used in crucial scenes. While the mind occasionally rebels against some of the imagery, I was hard pressed to positively identify which shots utilized live animals and which shots were computer generated. The filmmakers have clearly expended a painstaking amount of effort on making Richard Parker look and move as realistically as possible, and as a result, the creature never falls into the uncanny valley.
Most striking, however, is the film’s steadfast refusal to anthropomorphize the tiger. Life of Pi always remains grounded in its depiction of the animal. Following an early attempt by Pi to feed the tiger by hand, the boy’s father angrily intercedes; when young Pi says that he can tell that the animal has a soul, his father replies that what he sees reflected in the tiger’s eyes is not a soul, but a reflection of the boy’s own feelings. And the film never abandons the father’s interpretation of the animal; this isn’t a Disney movie. The audience is never allowed to forget that Richard Parker is a vicious, wild animal, that the internal workings of its mind are incomprehensible. After the two end up alone and stranded at sea, the tiger nearly succeeds in killing Pi several times, and it is only after the boy spends several agonizing weeks on a makeshift float attached to the life boat, carefully manipulating and training the beast from a distance, that the two are uneasily able to co-exist.
Ang Lee adopts a deliberately paced and meditative approach to the material. It’s perhaps a little too meditative. While, there’s an undeniable beauty in scenes featuring man and animal cast against an endless backdrop of sky and water or in nighttime sequences in which bioluminescent plankton light up the pitch black sea with neon colors, the film itself lacks a sense of pace and urgency. In the end, the visuals only go so far and the film frankly starts to drag.
Life of Pi, despite its shortcomings, is still an intelligently scripted and gorgeously crafted piece of filmmaking. It’s a visual touchstone in modern filmmaking. And if you’re going to see it, you need to see it in theaters and in 3D. To experience it in any other setting would only undermine the hypnotizing effect Ang Lee strives for here.