Beautiful on the outside, empty on the inside, Ang Lee’s glitzy “Life of Pi” is very much the equivalent of a Victoria’s Secret model sporting those fluffy angel wings. I mention the appendages because this is a movie about God, or, more precisely, gods – dozens of them, mostly Hindu. And if you don’t notice, just wait, Lee will clobber you over the head with it every 10 seconds. Subtlety just isn’t part of “Pi’s” equation. What is, is some of the most gorgeous 3-D images this side of “Avatar.”
Like James Cameron, Lee makes the most of his gadgetry, creating breathtaking landscapes and seascapes that look so real you feel like you could reach out and touch them. But an even more amazing feat is Richard Parker, a hulking Bengal tiger conjured out of nothing but binary key strokes. Not only is the lifelike cyber cat amazing to behold, he’s essential to any plausible telling of Yann Martel’s international best-seller about a boy and a tiger learning to share a lifeboat during a 227-day trek across the Pacific. Nature simply does not allow a boy and a tiger to share a tiny space for days on end without the cat eventually having the boy for lunch. That’s why Lee’s computer-driven trickery is as essential to the production as finding a young actor talented enough to spar with Mr. Parker, armed with nothing but his wits.
Seventeen-year-old newcomer Suraj Sharma largely fills the bill, displaying remarkable maturity and resourcefulness in portraying Piscine Patel, the soon-to-be orphaned son of a zookeeper, who goes down with his “ark” during a violent storm off the coast of Japan. Perishing with him are Piscine’s mother, brother and dozens of exotic zoo animals. The only survivors, besides Piscine, or Pi, as he prefers to be called, are a wounded zebra, an ornery hyena, a gentile orangutan, a rat and Richard Parker. Even though this is a movie about faith, Darwinism quickly takes care of everyone on the lifeboat except Pi and the tiger. And for nearly an hour, with mouths agape, we watch how the two learn to coexist through monsoons, scorching heat and an occasional moment of wonder, such as a humpback whale bursting through the ocean surface; or a school of flying fish, many leaping directly into the cavernous mouth of a famished Richard Parker; or a horde of luminous jellyfish brilliantly lighting up the night.
True to the book, each divine encounter is presented as a miracle of nature. And they do indeed inspire wonder, but seldom do these marvelous images penetrate deeper than a visceral level. Where’s the emotion? Where’s the heart? And most importantly, why should we care? The answers simply are not here, which is shocking, given that the screenwriter is David Magee, the same guy who made his adaptation of “Finding Neverland” so stirring. At nearly every step, his script, and Lee’s direction, feel as mechanical as the computers creating this fairytale world Pi and Richard Parker find themselves trapped in. Add to that the overbearing religious references, and an already overlong picture begins to try one’s patience.
Page 2 of 2 - Sharma’s limited acting abilities add to the growing doldrums. It’s a liability that might not have been so obvious if the actors playing Pi as a young boy (Ayush Tandon) and an adult (Irrfan Khan) weren’t so much more appealing. Tandon is especially good in the film’s introductory scenes, when we discover both how Pi got his name and how he grew to become a believer in Catholicism, Islamism and Hinduism all at once. But it’s Khan who steals the movie as an adult Pi recounting his lost-at-sea adventure to an inquisitive journalist (Rafe Spall, who took over after Tobey Maguire was let go). He’s the only human in the picture as dynamic as Lee’s stunning visuals.
Despite its flaws, “Pi” is such a technical wonder, it demands to be seen, and seen on the big screen in all its 3-D splendor. Besides, what’s Thanksgiving without a slice of “Pi?”
LIFE OF PI (B) (PG-13 for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.) Cast includes Suraj Sharma, Irrllfllan Khan and Rafe Spall. Directed by Ang Lee.