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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 10.18.12] drama adventure

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The Life of Pi is a film about stories. It's own premise sounds like a late night bar conversation, What if you were stuck in a lifeboat with a bengal tiger? How would you make it out alive? Not only does the hero of Life of Pi survive, along the way he discovers some things about himself, God and the nature of stories, not a bad outcome for such a deadly scenario. While somewhat simple and straightforward Life of Pi is an impressive technical achievement and a visual wonder. Moreover its simplicity can be mostly forgiven in light of a few outstanding performances.

Life of Pi is the story of a young boy from India, Piscine Patel, who's family is traveling from India to Canada along with all the animals of their family owned Zoo. A tragic wreck at sea condemns Pi's entire family and the menagerie to a watery grave. Adrift in the ocean Pi survives long enough to make it to a life boat which he soon discovers he shares with a very irate bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Thus begins Pi's 227 days adrift in the Pacific ocean.

I don't envy David Magee the job of adapting Life of Pi to the screen. It is a deeply religious and philosophical book, which is a death-knell for film adaptation. Only the excitement of the boy vs. tiger dynamic could keep this afloat. As a result a lot of the soul searching religious sections of the early book are skewed slightly to comedy in the movie. Long passages of philosophical thought and exploration are cut in favor of exciting sea life and mysterious deserted islands. It's a choice that makes sense for the film but I wish that the adaptation had been just a little bit braver. As it stands Life of Pi doesn’t make you think all that deeply, it spends most of its time making you look at the gorgeous scenery lovingly rendered in spectacular 3D.

3D is a hard tool to use effectively so let's just get this out of the way and say that Life of Pi is surprisingly artistic and effective in its use of 3D technology. 3D films fall into the trap of gimmicky scenes far to often. As anyone who’s ever seen Ferdinado Baldi's Comin At Ya knows, when you'd got 3D on the table suddenly every little thing is flying explicably towards the camera, as if the audience was made up of a huge pile of magnets. Arrows and spears and falling rocks and everything under the sun is used to "stimulate" the audience experience, which usually means just testing our patience. In Life of Pi 3D is used for two things to make animals appear hyper-realistic and to bring the spectacular water effects to life.

There are many things that are well done in Life of Pi but Ang Lee's greatest technical achievement is the handling of the water. Since Life of Pi takes place in the ocean we’re given a magnificent oceanscape. From the tremendous storm that sinks Pi's shipping frigate to the placidly calm reflective water afterwards, every wave and eddy is amazingly realistic and the 3D filming adds a tremendous depth of field to all of the water based scenes. Is it required to see this in 3D? Not at all, the scenes will look gorgeous in good old flat-vision but it is one of the better arguments for 3D use I've seen recently.

Once you're past the deafening beauty of the setting you can concentrate on the tent pole of the entire fable, the performers who embody our young thinker Pi. The bulk of our time is spent with with Suraj Sharma who plays the younger Pi. Sharma is a new find directed with verve and charm by Mr. Lee. It’s a difficult part to play, finding the emotions and physicality of a doomed, shipwrecked 16 year old its a tall order. Under the tutelage of Lee Mr. Sharma performs admirably. The older Pi played by Irrfan Khan is the best performance of the film. His emotional range is put to terrific use here and he sells the wise, experienced storyteller perfectly. I would gladly sit and watch any film in which Mr. Khan played a leading role. These two versions of Pi are the strongest portion of the film and they also help to shore up some of the weaker choices.

Gérard Depardieu is bizarrely cast as a complete throwaway role. Appearing once in the entire film to present the ugly face of a racist ships cook. Rafe Spall plays the writer who is interviewing Pi and his performance and presence is so vapid and milquetoast that Mr. Khan might as well be performing to the wall in some scenes. This isn't entirely Mr. Spall’s fault, he is horribly miscast. No one would believe that he was an accomplished world traveling author anymore then they would believe that I was a professional linebacker. Originally this role was supposed to be played by Tobey Maguire, which would've been considerably more distracing. Mr. Spall is a step in the right direction but someone with more gravitas and artistic spirit would've been better. It's a testament to Mr. Khan's performance that these scenes go as well as they do.

For all of its grand posturing Life of Pi is unlikely to cause any on the spot religious or philosophical conversions. To much religious musing has been cut from the book for it have any greater meaning. Its movie version runs the safe route through adventure movie territory, telling an entertaining and beautiful story without to much of the complicated "God" stuff. It's fun, gorgeous and not too demanding. It's absolutely worth seeing for the visual effects and the particularly arresting performances of the two Pi's.

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