Ang Lee knows how to make a beautiful looking film. Say what you will about the substance of his storytelling abilities, what he chooses to focus on always looks good onscreen.
Life of Pi is an ideal match for Ang Lee’s vision as a director. It is a story that has to contain sweeping images of unimaginable beauty. It is also a highly symbolic story with one major character and a whole lot of narration to guide the shape of the story. Even if Lee sacrificed momentum for a particularly lovely shot, the story would be able to continue without losing the actual plot.
Told in flashbacks, Life of Pi is all about the fantastic journey of Pi. He recounts his exploits growing up and leaving India to a writer who abandoned a novel just to meet him. Pi’s family ran an exotic zoo in the town’s botanical gardens. The guests ran out and Pi’s family had no choice but to sell off their assets and move to Canada. Their chartered ship crashes during a storm, leaving Pi on a lifeboat with a handful of wild animals in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no way to call for help.
Life of Pi is a quiet, meditative film about the power of faith. Pi chooses to become a Catholic and a Muslim while maintaining his Hindu beliefs as a young boy. This gives him a firm belief in the hand of God and the power of devotion to focus and shape a life. Even before he steps foot on the doomed freighter, his life is defined by the objectives of his many faiths. Pi is a remarkably grounded young man willing to evaluate every option before acting through the lens of morality.
>This spin on morality allows Ang Lee free reign to do what he does best. If the protagonist is a young man who basically sees God in everything, everything should be incredibly beautiful. Even a dark thunderstorm is filled with unexpected light, color, grandeur, and movement to create a living landscape that can take your breath away.
The middle chapter of the film, centered on the lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, does have a tendency to take on a certain sameness. There is an attempt to force the audience to connect with the increasingly mundane struggle of unending water and limited food supply on the boat. It’s just a little too drawn out at times.
The same can be said for Ang Lee’s embrace of 3D filmmaking. This is an overwhelming 3D feature. Lee pulls tricks that haven’t been done before with shifts in depth of field. Backdrops are swapped out like the pages in a storybook while the foreground shooting from the screen stays the same. First person perspective brings life to very simple but important story moments.
The problem is an excess of tricks. This is the kind of 3D film that can make a person with motion sickness very sick. The camera shakes and jumps in poor weather while the focus shifts from foreground to background and back again. Even in the calmest water conditions, the camera rocks back and forth with the waves. It’s very disorienting, especially in the middle stretch where everything happens on the tiny lifeboat.
Despite an overly elaborate 3D scheme and unyielding focus on the mundanity of life trapped at sea, Life of Pi comes out as a beautiful film with a lot of emotional depth. The story is much deeper than it initially seems and it took the eye of a visual director to bring it to life.
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