By Greg Vellante
---- — If one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, then movies should apply to this concept as well. Have you ever had somebody explain the plot of a film to you and immediately you’re baffled and hesitant on whether it’s something worth investing your time into? Take, for instance, the doozy of a plot at the center of “Life of Pi,” in which a boy becomes trapped at sea on a boat with a Bengal tiger.
But don’t let the oddball plot fool you, as director Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is one of the more magical film experiences of the year. But in order to receive this magic, one must first judge the movie not by how it begins, but where it goes from there.
Getting off to a shaky start, “Life of Pi” isn’t quite sure about the best way to structure its first act so it relies solely on the voiceover narration of an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) dictating his life story to “The Writer” (Rafe Spall).
If one can push past the first 20 minutes or so — which aren’t bad but rather poorly constructed narrative-wise — “Life of Pi” becomes a wondrous experience. When Older Pi gets to the part of the story where young Pi (Suraj Sharma) is separated from his family by a terrible storm at sea, the voiceover narration finally takes a rest and the visuals are allowed to operate freely and take control of the story, as film ultimately should do.
Pi becomes trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a large Bengal tiger humorously named Richard Parker. Soon, only Pi and Richard Parker remain, and “Life of Pi” becomes a story of survival, bonding and isolation. In many ways, I found myself thinking this would make a good double feature with “Cast Away,” though Richard Parker has nothing on Wilson the volleyball.
But more impressive than the story is how it is told, through truly impressive visuals and well-executed 3D. Capturing the natural world via completely unnatural digital production, the film still manages to look absolutely stunning. The sun reflects off the ocean water with grace, the waves have a rhythmic flow to them, and the sky is eye-popping and awe-inspiring.
Visually, “Life of Pi” captures the illustrative qualities of both nature and fantasy into something that most resembles a pop-up storybook I would read as a child. I was wowed.
“Life of Pi” has such a gorgeously delectable center, that it is reason enough to get through the terrible framing device that begins the film, and unfortunately also ends it. The film is at its best in silence, allowing the audience to fully embrace the movie for its painterly visual storytelling.
As a short film beginning right as Pi becomes lost at sea, “Life of Pi” may have been my favorite film of the year. Instead, it’s a memorable experience of unfortunate flaws, though certainly remains one of the more aesthetically-enriched digital productions I have seen this year.