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Life of Pi (20th Century Fox, PG)

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lifeofpi 75It seems like it should have been either a total failure or a great success, and it isn’t really either.

 

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It isn’t a stretch to say that Taiwan’s Ang Lee is one of the greatest modern directors, but that doesn’t mean that all of his films are good. He’s had more than his share of great films (1997’s The Ice Storm, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, to name just a few), but historically, one of his greatest weaknesses is his inability to successfully integrate CGI into his films. His most notorious failure is 2003’s Hulk (the Eric Bana one). The bad CGI was really the only major thing wrong with that movie, but it was bad to the point that it brought the whole tent down.

As such, it seems kind of strange that he’d tackle the beloved novel Life of Pi, which basically has to have a ton of CGI. As you probably know from the memorable cover image of the book, it’s about a young Indian boy stuck on a boat with a giant tiger, and such a conceit is hard to film believably if you exclusively use a real tiger. Worse is that Life of Pi is in 3-D, which has a tendency to really negatively highlight the use of green screen technology, so the deck is kind of stacked against Lee from the start.

The finished product is sort of odd. It isn’t a bad film, but it seems like it should have been either a total failure or a great success (the book on which it’s based is hugely beloved, after all), and it isn’t really either. It’s a beautiful film aesthetically speaking, but Lee is still having his same old problems integrating CGI: It looks nice, but isn’t always terribly believable. (Some whole sequences look like it switches to Robert Zemeckis-style motion capture rather than live action augmented by CGI.) What’s more, given the presence of animals and a PG rating, it looks like this is a kids’ movie, but it’s really more of an adult offering that just happens to have a PG rating. I think younger members of its audience are likely to be quite scared a lot of the time, or at the very least have trouble deciphering the sometimes thick Indian accents and occasional subtitles.

I feel like I should talk about the plot, but you really already know what you need to know: It’s about a young Indian boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma) stuck on a boat with a tiger for a long period of time. Sure, we learn about the events that lead up to this and the story gets resolved at the end, but that’s the bulk of the movie. The tiger is named Richard Parker and is a refugee from a zoo run by Pi’s dad (Adil Hussain); think of the film’s plot as a cross between Cast Away (a Zemeckis film, though lacking motion capture) and We Bought a Zoo.

There’s a dopey-seeming framing device in the film where an older version of Pi (Irrfan Khan, looking like a younger, Indian Christopher Walken) is relating his story to a struggling writer (Rafe Spall). By the time the film’s winding down, you’re probably going to resent the film going back to it, as it doesn’t work very well; the device feels shoehorned into the movie, and you’ll be anxious to get out of there. It’s really here that the major theme of the movie comes out, though, so try to be patient with the protracted ending—despite the fact that you have pancake ass from the 120 minutes that preceded it. | Pete Timmermann

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