Review: 'Life of Pi' is a 3D visual feast

By Shani Tan

Posted at Jan 09 2013 11:36 AM | Updated as of Jan 10 2013 09:46 AM

First-time actor Suraj Sharma stars in "Life of Pi"

If one could only choose to watch one movie in 3D this year, it will hands down be "Life of Pi." Considering that we've barely begun the year, it's understandable that one might consider that sentiment hyperbole. Except it is not.

A boy and a Bengal tiger are stuck in a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- this unusual premise was handled beautifully in Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel.

But translating this into film is a wholly different challenge that is difficult, to say the least. More than half of the movie takes place on a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere with only two characters, one of them doesn't speak at all and oh, yeah, he's also a tiger. How do you shoot that and not have audiences falling asleep in the middle of what potentially could have been a long-drawn out cat-and-mouse game?

Director Ang Lee's solution was to bring in another character in the form of the ocean itself. The clever depiction of water -- from the Parisian swimming pool that gives our hero his name to the fantastic sea -- is as much a masterpiece of CGI as the tiger itself.

The beginning of the movie has bucolic shots of a Pondicherry zoo, the above-mentioned swimming pool, and music that sound like lullabies as if God himself is singing you to sleep. Combine that with Pi's retro book covers and his dogged determination to follow three religions and to change his name, and it almost feels like this is a Wes Anderson movie. Beautiful everyday ordinary tableaus without the Futura typeface.

On a Japanese ship bound for Canada, the lack of culinary vegetarian options, harshly drawn by a Gerard Depardieu cameo, obviously means we're not in Pondicherry anymore. When the ship sinks, the ocean is a violent, rolling mass of gigantic waves. The sinking of the ship is both a sad and breathtaking visual.

When the storm passes, Pi is the only human survivor along with an injured zebra, a hyena and an orangutan (a set-up that feels a little too much like a "walks into a bar" joke). The situation devolves to "Lord of the Flies" until the tiger, named Richard Parker, rears his seasick majestic head and makes short work of all the other animals.

"Life of Pi" takes audiences from stormy to serene

There is a lot of talk in the movie about whether you can see an animal's soul through his eyes. The CGI gives us a realistic tiger but the question of whether it is "real" is still up for debate.

First-time actor Suraj Sharma as the young Pi really brings it here. We know the tiger is just ones and zero but if anything makes you believe that it is real, it is Pi's reaction and the palpable fear in his gut.

Cast adrift, Pi and Richard Parker co-exist, Richard Parker on the lifeboat and Pi on a tiny raft extension. Pi immediately adapts a feed-or-be-eaten outlook on his relationship with the tiger.

If we're counting the ocean as a character, it is definitely one of the scene-chewing variety. Via flying fish and hallucinations, it gives us these fantastical underwater scenes. But even a luminescent giant whale, a sea creature that dissolves into zoo animals and a Titanic-esque view of the sunken ship pale in comparison to the the lifeboat sailing on a starry sky. Psychedelic jellyfish and cute meerkats are another story though.

A scene from "Life of Pi"

The story is told from the older Pi's point of view so any suspense is undercut by the audience knowing he survives. We know that this is not what the story is about. It is set-up in the beginning, that this is a story with grandiose ambition. This is a story that will make you believe in God, the older Pi claims.

Does it succeed? The audacity of the statement, never mind that it was superbly understated by Irrfan Khan, perhaps gives the movie ambitions far higher than what its narrative is capable of.

Pi's unshakeable faith in a higher power of whatever religion is both admirable and frustrating. I wish there was more meat to the "make you believe in God." Without any prompting from the plot, it resorts to name-checking God every so often in Pi's internal monologue.

The movie is still a visual feast. Doubtless, we've already seen the posters that feature the burnished sky reflected seemlessly on the calm water. It's scene after scene of beautiful images and definitely worth seeing in 3D.