Sunday, November 25, 2012

Life of Pi / **** (PG)

Pi Patel: Suraj Sharma
Adult Pi Patel: Irrfan Khan
Pi Patel (11 years): Ayush Tandon
Pi Patel (5 years): Gautam Belur
Santosh Patel: Adil Hussain
Gita Patel: Tabu
Writer: Rafe Spall
Cook: GĂ©rard Depardieu

Fox 2000 Pictures presents a film directed by Ang Lee. Written by David Magee. Based on the novel by Yann Martel. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG (for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril).

You may have gathered from the promotional materials for the new movie “Life of Pi” that much of the film’s action involves a boy surviving on a life raft with a Bengal Tiger. The boy is the Pi of the title. His name makes for an interesting story. The tiger’s name is more cumbersome. The tiger’s name is Richard Parker, which is explained in another interesting story, but it doesn’t seem like a name that will take once you’re aware of it. By the point that the boy cradles that large beast’s head in his lap as he realizes the tiger is dying of starvation and thirst, the tiger’s name is Richard Parker even to us and could be nothing else.

That is the power of the film; it’s ability to invest you not only in the character of Pi, but also that of Richard Parker, who is all tiger, as opposed to some movie animal that is humanized by a contrived story situation that imbues him with the characteristics of a person. Richard Parker is a great threat to Pi. Parker is a killer, as Pi learns early in the film as a precocious 11-year old. Pi’s father runs a zoo in India. When the Zoo first acquires Parker, Pi gets it in his head that he wants to see the animal up close and dangles a piece of meat into his pen. He might’ve lost his arm had his brother not informed his father of the incident. Pi’s father illustrates in a graphic lesson for his son that Parker is an animal with an instinct to kill and no understanding that people are anything but meat. Pi prefers to think that even animals have souls.

Director Ang Lee’s beautiful film is surprisingly deep for a story that can speak to such a wide range of ages. It is told in flashback as a writer seeks out a middle aged Pi who now resides as a college professor in Canada. The writer has been told that Pi’s story will make him believe in God. As a child, Pi finds an unusual relationship with God, as he feels every religion he comes upon is God’s own personal introduction to him. He is born into Hinduism. He also becomes a Christian and a Muslim. His journey with the tiger gives him a very unique understanding of God. I think the movie gets God just about right, and may allow the idea of so many different religions all claiming to know God make more sense for an inquisitive child.

Lee’s direction and cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s photography is exquisitely beautiful. Shot in 3D, this is one of the few films presented in that format that truly benefits from it. Even the opening passages, which aren’t as dependent on the three dimensions as the central developments, are so gorgeous that you could just watch these frames in utter fascination of the details. The camera contemplates the beauty of the animals in the zoo during the opening credits. The splendor of the Indian setting and culture are explored with a visual consideration that is usually reserved for documentary filmmaking. Then there is the spectacular shipwreck and the stunning sequences adrift at sea.

The parallels between this movie and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 production “The Black Stallion” are impossible to ignore. Both are great films for kids that don’t fall into the formulas of kids’ movies. They both tell a tale of mutual survival between a child and a wild animal. The stakes are raised a little higher with this film considering the situation of having to survive at sea in a very confined space with an animal that would just as soon eat you for its own survival. I remember being enthralled by “The Black Stallion” when I was a child. This film, despite a dialogue driven opening act, enthralled my own boys. I think the set up fascinated them as much as the adventure.

David Magee bases his screenplay on the book by Yann Martel. I haven’t read the book, but imagine it only adds to the philosophical nature of the film. Lee, a master filmmaker of such visual spectacles as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Ride with the Devil”, outdoes himself here, substituting the power of prose with majestic and magical images. He only enhances his effects with the 3D presentation. The result is a visual and intellectual feast of images and ideas that somehow reaches all ages with equal influence. This is one of the best films of the year.

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