Another popular but supposedly unfilmable novel, “The Life of Pi,” has been filmed, coming right on the heels of the also unfilmable-but-filmed-anyway “Cloud Atlas.” Ang Lee’s film of “Life of Pi” shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses with the Wachowski/Tykwer production. It’s got amazing visuals and a handful of really great moments, but ultimately it just doesn’t hold together.
Lee, who has directed great films as diverse as “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain” but is also capable of major misfires, works in 3D for the first time, emphasizing unusual images and amazing color combinations, working in combination with cinematographer Claudio Miranda. Where else have you ever seen a young boy on a life raft in the ocean with a tiger?
The film’s backstory is probably the only scenario in which the boy/tiger boat trip is possible. Pi (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) is a teenager in a French-colonized part of India, at some point in the 1970s. A vegetarian, who practices a homespun religion that combines aspects of Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam, Pi lives a pretty typical kid’s life in India until his father- a zookeeper- decides to emigrate the family to Canada, setting sail on a boat with all the animals.
But when the ship sinks, killing everyone of every species save for Pi and a couple of the animals, Pi must find a way to stay alive. Call it “Slumdog Millionaire”-meets-“Cast Away,” only without the game show, and if Wilson the volleyball had been a huge, carnivorous tiger.
Like “Cast Away,” the majority of the film is one long sequence in which Pi and the tiger get to know each other on the boat. The visuals are pretty amazing- unlike most filmmakers, Lee actually puts some effort into using 3D to render awesome-looking images- but the whole sequence is ultimately not all that interesting.
There’s a scene later in which the boy and tiger visit an island ruled by meerkats, which seems controlled by supernatural forces, a la Lost. I think I’d rather watch a whole movie about that island than the one I actually watched.
The other problem is the film’s framing device, which has a middle-aged Pi telling his life story to a novelist. Not only does it give away from the beginning that Pi survives, but the ending is both abrupt and hugely unsatisfying. “Life of Pi” has a lot in common with “127 Hours”- but the difference is, the last five minutes is the worst part instead of the best.
I give “Life of Pi” credit for ambition and creativity. But it ultimately doesn’t amount to a whole lot.