Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Ang Lee, the acclaimed director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain has managed to adapt Yann Martel's best-selling novel Life of Pi, about a young Indian boy trapped at sea, into one of the most visually stunning motion pictures ever made.  Working with of a cast of no-names (excluding the where-is-he-now Gerard Depardieu in a weird and worthless role),  Lee manages to tell an epic talk of struggle, spiritual awakening and perseverance that is highly enhanced by the effective use of 3D technology.

The movie begins with an older Indian man named Pi (Piscine is his given name of French origin but we see early-on why he decided to shorten it) telling the remarkable story of his life to a journalist.  The bulk of the film is a flashback on the significant event in Pi's life, a shipwreck that takes the lives of his brother, Mother and Father and disperses a ship full of zoo animals in the process.  Pi (played with remarkable conviction by Suraj Sharma) manages to survive the sinking freighter only to find himself stranded on a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker (the origin of this name is rather humorous).  We witness the struggle of Pi as he fights off hunger and Richard Parker himself during months of isolation at sea.  The middle part of this movie reminded me of Cast Away on steroids.

Outside of the surprisingly strong acting performance put forth by Sharma, the real stars of this movie are the visual effects geniuses at Rhythm and Hues who manage to create "this-can't-be-CGI" representations of a wide range of animals, from Meerkats to Zebras to Sharks and Orangutans.  Having won an Oscar for 2008's The Golden Compass, R&H manages to out-do themselves with the quality of the computer effects used in this film.  The animation of Richard Parker alone should seal an Academy Award nomination for this movie.  As the second main character of the film, the CGI Tiger is a living breathing co-star to Pi and conveys a wide range of emotion that harkens back to the wizardry done by Weta Digital in animating Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.  The key to the believability in the animation is all of the natural movements the animators give to Zebras, Hyenas and other animals that are in immediate peril as a result of the disaster at sea.   

Lee seems to be at home weilding the latest in 3D technology.  He uses the depth of field effortlessly in depicting the isolation of the open water as well as the beauty of nature as a whole.  I can see this film eventually being showcased on the Discovery Channel as a vivid showcase of both the visual splendor and dangerous aspects of the natural world.  As an audience, we get to experience all of these amazing landscape visuals alongside of Pi through the total 3D immersion.  It's hard to imagine a similar experience if this movie were to be viewed on Bluray outside of the theater.

Life of Pi is a remarkable technical achievement that matches Avatar as the best use of 3D storytelling to-date.  The immersive way that Lee places the audience directly in the scenery is extremely effective.  I was not expecting this movie to be this good and I encourage everyone to see this in 3D in the theater (even Doe B. Kim).  This is soooo close to a 5 out of 5 for me but due to some slowness early-on and a rather lackluster final few scenes, I have to give this a very strong 4.5 out 5 JRs.  This is one of the best movies of the year without a doubt and probably Ang Lee's best directorial effort of his filmmaking career.

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