Talk about lofty goals.
"Life of Pi," director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel, frames itself as the ultimate spiritual, religious adventure. Early on in the film, a character even states that he wants to hear a story that "will make you believe in God." If that wasn't enough, the movie's 3-D is supposed to revive audiences' pre-"Clash of the Titans" love for the gimmick. I don't know which feat would be more impressive.
So does "Life of Pi" have the emotional power to turn the religiously dubious into the devout? Eh, unlikely. Will it restore people's faith in 3-D? Possibly. If there's one thing that's undoubtedly confirmed after seeing Piscene Molitor Patel's sea-based saga, though, it's that Ang Lee is an outrageously talented and inventive visual director.
After setting the stage with a few stories about his unique name, school days and childhood religious experimentation, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells a struggling author (Rafe Spall, previously seen talking cutesy with a deadly alien snake in "Prometheus") his epic tale of survival.
In his story, teenage Pi (impressive newcomer Suraj Sharma) miraculously survives a violent ship sinking while moving from India to Canada with his family. He, as well as a few exotic animals from his family's zoo, find their way onto a lifeboat, but after a sad series of events, only Pi and a beautiful but ravenous Bengal tiger are left alive. Together, the two must learn to survive the elements, hunger, mysterious islands and each other to pass this fierce test of faith.
Most of what ensues consists only of Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker due to a clerical error, floating out on the lonely sea. It sounds like it has the potential to be a bore, but Lee fills the adventure with gorgeous and vibrant images that keeps viewers excitedly anticipating what surreal imagery they'll see next.
A sinking ship's lights hauntingly illuminate the world under the ocean's surface. The lifeboat looks like it's floating in the midst of a vast, mesmerizing emptiness; the horizon is a mere myth. A school of jellyfish gives the night a florescent glow. The word visionary gets tossed around a lot nowadays when talking about directors (Zack Snyder and Sam Raimi have both dubiously received the title), but after "Life of Pi," Lee proves he's one of the few who deserve it.
The 3-D adds a surprising depth to Lee's already rich visuals. In fact, it's so immersive that it's easy to take it for granted. Things aren't popping out or shouting "look at the 3-D!" at the audience. Instead, it makes the ocean feel even more vast and the lifeboat even more alone.
There are a few moments where the gimmick missteps, most notably during a siege of flying fish where it abruptly adds letterboxing (that's not good 3-D; that's cheating). I wouldn't say you have to see it in 3-D; it's not like "Avatar" where if you see it 2-D, you're getting a worse movie. But overall, it's an impressive addition that won't have you feeling buyer's remorse for the $3 upcharge.
Lee is almost as capable with the film's story as he is with the magical visuals. "Life of Pi"'s story takes the audience through a lot, starting with Pi's charming childhood experiences, a short-but-sweet romance and then finally hitting the open seas. There, all sorts of intense moments – namely a shipwreck that could give "Titanic" a run for its money and the suspenseful interactions with the increasingly hungry Richard Parker – take place. All the while, religious debates, discussions and frustrations arise, all well presented and intriguing, even when the visuals aren't busy wowing the audience.
The only unfortunate thing is that, for a journey so entrenched in spirituality, survival and uplift, it's rather emotionally distant. Pi's story just never hits the soul as strongly as it should. A large chunk of the problem is the "Big Fish/Curious Case of Benjamin Button"-esque frame story, which not only spoils the ending but just isn't all that interesting. Why would I want to watch these two regular guys chat when there's an epic tale of survival going on?
It's too bad because Khan, a veteran Indian actor previously seen in bit roles in "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Slumdog Millionaire," is very good, expressing the kind of happiness and sadness that such an experience would create. He seems even better when compared to Spall, who says every line with the kind of "Aw, shucks" wonder that can make "Life of Pi" seem a bit too pleased with itself.
Admittedly, though, if I looked as beautiful and as dazzling as "Life of Pi," I'd be pretty impressed with myself, as well.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published Sept. 28, 2016
Before its final Milwaukee Film Festival showing on Wednesday, Oct. 5, we chatted with director Irene Taylor Brodsky about her harrowing doc "Beware the Slenderman" - and why true crime has become such a pop culture sensation.
Published Sept. 28, 2016
The Milwaukee Film Festival is here, and, as a proud sponsor, OnMilwaukee is honored to bring you Spotlight Presentations and a new sports series, Sportsball!, this year. We'll also bring you our picks every day. Here's what you shouldn't miss for Day 7.
Published Sept. 26, 2016
You would think Netflix would spend October stocking up some horror flicks in time for the Halloween season. And oddly, you would be thinking wrong. But at least Netflix has a strong supply of originals and classics coming your way in October.
Published Sept. 25, 2016
John Darnielle turned to a surprising place for The Mountain Goats' latest record: professional wrestling. Before the band's show Tuesday night, we chatted with the storytelling frontman about his wrestling inspiration and digging through nostalgia.
Published Sept. 23, 2016
The 2016 Milwaukee Film Festival opened Thursday evening much the way the last rendition closed: with a documentary tribute to finding meaning at the movies, this time via "Life, Animated," a sweet and lovely moving picture - in all meanings of the phrase.
Published Sept. 19, 2016
With almost 300 movies set to screen during the Milwaukee Film Festival, it can be almost impossible to figure out what to see. OnMilwaukee film critic Matt Mueller is here to help, breaking down each day with what you must see.
Published Sept. 16, 2016
Looking around Reed Street Yards, it's hard not to think it would be a perfect place for a nature-conscious music festival. Apparently Rock the Green thought the same thing, as the area will play host to its return on Saturday, Sept. 17.
Published Sept. 15, 2016
Oscar winner John Ridley, "Arrested Development" star Mae Whitman and "Silicon Valley" star Martin Starr are just a few of the many filmmakers, film subjects and performers heading to the Milwaukee Film Festival starting next Thursday.
Published Sept. 14, 2016
The Green Bay Packers will have to wear a Color Rush uniform during their Thursday night spat with the Chicago Bears on Oct. 20. Thankfully, the revealed jersey is nowhere near the brightly colored nightmare it could've been.
Published Sept. 14, 2016
Good news, Brewers fans. Your suffering through this difficult - though not completely catastrophic - rebuilding season is coming to a grateful close, and shining as a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel is next year's schedule, released today.