The truth is Life of Pi shouldn’t work as a film; cinematic challenges abound. To begin, we spend nearly half the movie on a lifeboat, with nothing but Pi (Suraj Sharma, distressed, open-mouthed) and his (beautifully-rendered) Bengal tiger as company. As with Atagoal Cat’s Magical Forest before it, one can only admire large computerized felines for so long. Further, the film repeatedly jumps from present-day Pi (Irrfan Khan, telling the story) to his teenage self (Sharma, living the story). It’s a familiar narrative technique, but here, it’s awkward and even a little forced. Rafe Spall—playing the dreamy-eyed, soft-spoken journalist—doesn’t help, frequently requesting that adult-Pi repeat the basic points of the story’s already simple plot. Like a magician who must set up each trick, these interruptions blunt the film’s otherwise magical spirit. Late in Life of Pi, Spall must deliver a few straightforward lines to resolve the movie’s biggest question (can Pi’s story make the listener believe in God?), and he botches the delivery, politely mumbling his way into cinematic irrelevance as the credits roll.
Mercifully, Life of Pi’s other actors perform far more competently. Sharma pouts, grimaces, and grunts appropriately as Pi, though his tiger, Richard Parker, proves the more memorable of the two. Pi’s father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu), and brother (Vibish Sivakumar) fulfill their caricatured duties with class and professionalism, as the controlling father, the nurturing mother, and the vaguely-more-normal-and-successful older brother. The Noah’s Ark allotment of animals steal the screen, however, and to his credit, director Ang Lee seems aware of this. He opens the film with an enchanting montage displaying all sorts of wondrous species, and the camera prefers fur to flesh throughout.
The flash-back-and-forth formula finds its way from rough waters to placid seas, and happily, vanishes for nearly all of Pi’s shipwrecked exploits. Still, new problems arise. Solitary despair works well in novels—the author can linger on his or her character’s wild thoughts and growing insanity. In film, however, directors must balance story with spectacle. Ang Lee bets entirely on the latter, trading the pain of raw loneliness for bright and fantastical visuals. We see majestic blue whales, shark fins swirling gracefully, and glowing jellyfish dotting the aquatic landscape. Pi’s glum predicament soon becomes Disney’s World of Color. By the two-hour mark, I was prepared to book the next Pacific Ocean voyage on Santa Barbara’s leakiest vessel.
Life of Pi may begin confused about what it is: a mystery, a coming of age tale, a fable of faith, a sequel to Tom Hanks’ Cast Away? But like a bunny becoming familiar with its cage, the film gradually accepts the limitations of its medium, choosing to make the best of its unfortunate confinement. You’ll leave with a sense of wonder about the mysteries of belief, the vastness of the ocean, and the craft of storytelling, just as the jarring elements—the bland journalist, the disorderly narrative—sink with Pi’s past life, to the bottom of the sea. The film medium may be Life of Pi’s biggest challenge, but in a testament to the art form, the marvels of cinema prove the solution as well.