Review: Life of Pi shows beauty, says too much
If you've seen the trailer for Life of Pi, then you know the story focuses on a boy named Pi, shipwrecked and lost at sea with a Bengal Tiger. You've seen bits and pieces of the film's most beautiful moments, the struggle to survive, and deductive viewers may even gather the fate of the unlikely pair. It's one of those unfortunate instances where a trailer reveals too much, where your first experience with a story is a piece of well-edited advertising.
It's perhaps appropriate then, that Life of Pi's biggest issue is that its story leaves little to the imagination. There are unexpected moments—wrinkles in the story that are too complex or unmarketable for the trailer to spoil— yet before we are given a chance to examine the meaning behind them the storytellers explain it all away. This is especially unfortunate because, story foibles aside, Life of Pi is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.
The central story is told on multiple levels, and before we can get to the boy-at-sea-with-tiger part we have to learn who Pi is. As a result of this we are introduced to a tale of religious discovery. Pi wants to connect with his god so much that he pursues any religion that sounds appealing. It's in this way that Life of Pi skirts around being overly preachy. If you have belief of any kind, or no belief at all, the story does not judge you. It only asks that you come along for the ride. I appreciated that.
Eventually we arrive at the story that tests Pi's beliefs. The heart of the film is a sight to behold. The visual of a man and a tiger sharing a boat out in the strangeness of the sea is breathtaking. It's something that, again, I wish I'd experienced first with this film and not a piece of advertising I'd seen a dozen times.
Certainly such a premise would be impossible to film with a real tiger, and so it's astounding what has been accomplished with CG effects. This is a tiger with as much personality as Pi himself. Expertly animated and detailed, the special effects never once take us out of the moment. It helps that the ocean world we are shown is itself strange and surreal. Everything seems to carry some bioluminescence whether it would in real life or not. It only adds to the fantasy of Pi's journey.
With Life of Pi I knew I'd watched a stunning adventure and a unique visual feast, but I didn't feel like I had carried anything with me out of the theater. There was nothing to chew on. All my questions were answered by the film before I'd even asked them. Not every film aspires to be subtle, but there are moments in Life of Pi where a little less explanation could have done wonders. It's a story I can imagine discussing and debating with friends, but now there's little to discuss. Some mystery can go a long way, and that lesson applies to both advertising and filmmaking.