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NYFF: ‘Life of Pi’ is Near-Perfect

By  · Published on September 29th, 2012

NYFF: ‘Life of Pi’ is Near-Perfect

Director Ang Lee was given a reported $100 million to make this trippy, gut-wrenching, and moving picture. An adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, Life of Pi is an epic art house film that was somehow granted big studio treatment. How could this happen, you ask? If any excuse could be made, it’s likely that Fox knew Lee had something this special up his sleeve.

Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) is given a lofty request by a visiting writer at the beginning of the film: “Tell me a story that will make me believe in God.” What follows is a story that may not make you run to church but at least will make you reach for a tissue. Pi tells this man, played by Rafe Spall, a tale full of suffering and hope.

As a boy, he and his family are forced to move out of India, along with the zoo they own. Like most trips in film, their journey does not go smoothly. The ship is hit by a massive storm and the family is lost at sea, leaving the young Pi (Suraj Sharma) alone on a life boat with a few of their animals. Soon, he discovers he has a starving companion along for the ride in Richard Parker, who happens to be a Bengal tiger.

A boy and a tiger adrift in the ocean for a long period of time sounds like it has the potential to be repetitive, claustrophobic and, worst of all, downright boring. Lee sidesteps all of those potential issues, making every scene feel so alive and vibrant. One never thinks they’re watching a boy in a giant water tank acting opposite a CG tiger. Every scene has a sense of grandeur, even the most intimate of moments.

That doesn’t mean the film never goes big, though. When the ship crashes, it’s a masterful, drawn out, terrifying sequence. Lee makes every wave have an impact. Life of Pi isn’t a horror movie, but this is one of the most horrific scenes in recent memory. Since we’ve already been introduced to Pi as a man, we know he will survive this incident, but that knowledge never comes close to killing the tension of the character’s circumstance.

What’s most appealing about that circumstance is Lee’s handling of Pi and Richard Parker’s relationship. Based on the use of Coldplay and Sigur Ros music in the recent trailer, cloying sentimentality is what we expected most from Life of Pi. That schmaltz is nowhere to be found. Richard Parker never becomes the boy’s best friend. He remains a tiger. Pi does see something in the animal, but perhaps it’s just what his father told him: “You’re only seeing a reflection of yourself.”

They both share this epic journey together, and by the end, like the writer speaking with older Pi, you will be asking, “What does it all mean?” Pi responds to the writer, “Why does it have to mean anything?” Is Life of Pi about Pi’s faith getting him through this ordeal? Or, is it all just a simple tale of survival, and nothing more? With a story this moving, it doesn’t really matter which interpretation one decides to go with.

During Lee’s introduction at the New York Film Festival, he said he still has two more weeks of work on the picture. Whatever changes could be made to improve this picture goes beyond the normal mind to comprehend, but after seeing Life of Pi, it serves as a reminder that Lee isn’t exactly on normal ground. The director is a visionary, and thankfully he was given this gigantic canvas to make Life of Pi an astounding theatrical experience.

The Upside: It’s a powerful film with a moving performance by Suraj Sharma and one of the finest examples of 3D. Gorgeous sequence after gorgeous sequence, it’s got real heart without ever having to pull the strings for it.

The Downside: There’s a little story button towards the end that isn’t necessary.

On The Side: Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) was once attatched to direct the adaptation.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.