The Life of Pi… It must be an interesting story, depending on which angle you take. You could follow it from its humble doughy beginnings. You’d recoil at the brutal kneading and stretching. Laugh when it hits the giddy heights of 200 degrees as it bakes to perfection. And you’ll weep when its whole life is obliterated by some greedy child (or Jim from American Pie). Oh wait, that’d be a pie. Still, an interesting story. Well, since the title’s not referring to baked goods, it certainly can’t be telling the tale of π, can it? That beautiful mathematical constant that spreads herself far and wide, penetrating every hole and circle in the world like some promiscuous lady of the night. No? Oh, so it’s Ang Lee‘s adaptation of the book “Life of Pi” then? Probably a safer bet than a tale about a number or baked goods then…
Yes, Life of Pi is the big screen adaptation of the novel by Yann Martel – the critically revered book about one man’s life and all the highs and lows that it brings. Without delving too much into the story, it follows the life of Pi (played by numerous actors, but mainly Suraj Sharma as Pi the younger, and Irrfan Khan as Pi the elder) – a young Indian boy who travels with his family (and their zoo) across the Pacific Ocean to begin life anew in Canada. Tragedy strikes when the freighter they’re travelling on sinks to the depths of the ocean. But Pi survives. As do some of his fellow travellers. Mainly those that don’t speak very often: his animals. The film / book works as a retrospective, as Pi recounts the story to a budding novelist, played by Rafe Spall. It really is a bombastic and incredible story, filled with stunning visuals and heart warming moments, but I left the screening feeling somewhat underwhelmed.
Well, where to begin. This film has been the subject of much hype with critics branding it as the cinematic event of the year. And on paper you could understand why. First up, we have the choice of director: Ang Lee. This is the guy that was once the darling of tinsel town following his big one-two hits of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, but he’s been rather quiet in recent years. He also toyed with Hulk back in the day. Back before Hulk started smashing puny Gods… and before his alter-ego was played by Edward Norton. Lee’s Hulk was derided far and wide for being rather too serious and taking far too long to bring the big, green guy to the screen. But this was the pre-Batman Begins and pre-Iron Man era. A time when superhero movies were nothing but a blemish on the income sheet of studios around the world. Oh how things have changed…
But back on track. You have the big name director in place, renowned for great stories and/or gorgeous visuals, and you have a critically-acclaimed, best selling novel to back it up. What can go wrong? Well, nothing’s wrong per se, but there’s not a whole lot that I feel merits such great praise. Yes, the 3D technology feels at home for the first time since Avatar and the CGI animals are simply fantastic, but past that I don’t feel there’s a whole lot to rave about.
Whilst the story is interesting, it’s certainly not compelling enough to justify the 120+ minute run time in my opinion. Despite the fact that The Hobbit was a long movie, it never felt that way – the plot constantly developed and evolved. New locales were uncovered and new characters encountered. But Life of Pi is a pretty lonely story for the most part. Whilst it takes a long while to get to the boat’s sinking, that was fine – it enriched Pi’s character and helped us understand his upbringing. But when the story breaks down into Pi and his animal friends, it gets slow. It gets really slow. This may work very well as a book (I wouldn’t know, I’ve not read it), but it doesn’t work so well as a film. As I say, it’s not a poor stab at what must be a very hard story to translate to film, but I feel that it might just not be possible to pull off, regardless of director and screenplay writer.
One thing I can agree with is how smooth and stunning the CGI-generated animals are on-screen. If I hadn’t just come off the back of seeing The Hobbit in 48fps and cooing at Gollum’s animation, I wouldn’t hesitate in calling these creatures the finest creations this year. You’d swear that our young adventurer was aboard his life raft with Richard Parker (his tiger). It’s going to be a tough call for the Academy to decide who walks away with the Best Visual Effects’ Oscar in 2013, but I’ll bet you it’s someone associated with one of these two films.
Ultimately, I just failed to connect with the story. Myself and others left the screening uttering phrases such as “is that it?”, “I don’t get it” and “that was different”. I’m glad I go to such vocal screenings sometimes (though if that punk kid on my aisle slurped the ice out of his empty cup one more, I’d have had to educate him in the Life of Pain). The story, whilst lovely to look at, feels a little empty at the end of it all. Especially when you factor in the “twist” ending that those familiar with the book will already know of. Sure, it’s an adventure. Sure, it’s nice to look at. But ultimately, it’s much like a painting – beautiful to behold, and it may tell a fascinating story, but it won’t appeal to every viewer. Some people just prefer Spider-Man to Rembrandt.
Life of Pi is certainly one of the most ambitious films of the year. But with ambition comes an inherent risk – the risk that it was too ambitious. Whilst I commend the whole team behind the film for really striving to bring the story to life, I can’t help but feel that it just isn’t a story that translates into a 2 hour cinematic adventure. I’m sure it’ll scoop some awards this season, but it certainly isn’t the darling some would have you believe. And as for being a “family adventure film”? I’d leave the kids at home. Especially if they’re going to slurp ice every 20 seconds.
This Christmas season I’m more interested in the Life of Pie than the Life of Pi. Whilst I type, I can smell fresh mince pies cooling downstairs and I can’t wait to tuck into every pie under the sun whilst I enter my festive bloating-session. I’d much rather invest my hours into ensuring those pies are golden and delicious than have to invest another two hours into a film like Life of Pi. Though one thing I’m certain of is that no-one really wants to hear the story of π and how it gained all its digits. Let me start that story off for you right now… 3.14159… bet you can’t wait for that killer twist “7” that’s coming up…