Life of Pi: Ang Lee’s Spectacular, Oscar Caliber Spectacle

New York Film Fest Opening Night (Opens November 21)–After making the disappointing period saga,“Taking Woodstock,” one of his weakest films, Ang Lee is back on terra ferma with “Life of Pi,” a supremely mounted high-seas adventure, based on the best-selling book of the same title published in 2001.

World-premiering at the New York Film Fest as opening night of its 50th anniversary, “Life of Pi” will be released by 20th Century Fox November 21, at the height of the awards season, in time for Oscar considerations. This picture deserves serious Oscar attention for Best Picture, Best Director, and of course, recognition in the technical categories.

Shooting in a striking 3-D format, Lee has made an enchanting fable that makes good use of the latest technological advances. Savvy and spectacular in ways that were not possible even five years ago, “Life of Pi” puts sophisticated methods in the service of a rather engaging narrative about the survival of a courageous boy in the aftermath of a shipwreck (sort of a young, modern-day Robinson Crusoe).

As in the best work of Ang Lee (including his masterpiece. The 2005 “Brokeback Mountain,” which should have won the Best Picture Oscar), narrative structure and contents, technical form and visual style march hand in hand.

Yet, despite the markings of a great art film, “Life of Pi” somewhat falls short of its goal as a brilliant film due to the challenging text and deliberate pacing in some sequences, and the impossibility to maintain consistent emotional engagement throughout the story.  Even so, “Life of Pi” is a very good film, if not a great one, and as such should be supported by critics and audience.

Here is an art film, which is not only suitable for festival showings and qualifies as an opener (unlike the poor choice of Polanski’s weak “Carnage,” which opened last year’s event, and then was dismissed by most reviewers and audiences), but one that depends on critical support to reach its potentially large public.

Having read the book about a decade ago, my first impression was that the text was unfilmable, and indeed, it took a relative long time to commit the text onto the big screen.

Hopping from genre to genre, and fro style to style,  the versatile and diverse Ang Lee has made a touching tale, boasting strong realistic and lyrical touches, about a shipwrecked adolescent stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

On paper, the story seems conventional enough to appeal to mass audiences, composed of all members of the family; if this movie were made during the Golden Age of the studio system, it could have been advertised and marketed as classic family fare.

Yann Martel’s highly acclaimed novel, which also experienced a long process of gestation from word to print, eventually won the Man Booker Prize (and other prizes), and sold seven million copies.  It’s considered to be a master work by some reviewers, and a cultish reading by others.

Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel is the novel’s narrator and protagonist. He was named after a Parisian swimming pool, despite the fact that his parents did not like swimming.

In the book, the youngster is older, around sixteen, but the movie maintains his POV, relating the story of his life and his 227-day journey on a lifeboat when his boat sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean during a voyage to Winnipeg.  Thus, the story is told as a narrative from the perspective of a middle-aged Pi, who’s married and with his own family, and living in Canada.

It’s not surprising that the movie’s scenario unfolds as a fable, albeit ne with lyrical touches, given that it was penned by David Magee, who previously wrote the Oscar-nominated “Finding Neverland,”directed by Mar Forester.

The first reel sets the context, with vivid details about the main characters and their backgrounds, including the adoption of religion and family relationships, especially between the young hero and his brother.

In the town of Pondicherry, a former French colony in southern India, Pi’s father runs a zoo. Turning point occurs, when the father plans to move to Canada and sell the animals, leading to magical chapters depicting the journey, storms and eventually horrible shipwreck.

In his effort to be truthful to the source material (a trademark of Lee as a sensitive and conscientious director), “Life of Pi” is effective as a urvival story a la Robinson Crusoe (Boy Vs. Nature), a powerful coming of age fable, a spiritual meditation on the co-existence of humans and animals, and perhaps most interesting (at least to me), a self-reflexive film about the nature of faith and yhe limitations of narrativity and storytelling.

It’s close to a miracle that, for the most part, “Life of Pi” fulfills expectations (and more) on all of these levels, creating in the process a sense of visual splendor and magical wonder that only the rich and seductive medium of film, the most unique art form,  can aspire to achieve.

Lee’s casting of the two key parts is crucial to the movie’s ultimate success. The unknown Ayoush Tandon plays the young, bold, and curious Pi, with charm and a sense of wonder, whereas another good and matching actor, Irrfan Khan, plays with gravitas the grown-up Pi, looking back in a self-conscious manner on his thrilling as well as devastating experience.

The film was only partly shot on location, in India, while most was recorded, following the model of James Csmeron, in a huge water tank in Taiwan (Lee hails back from Taiwan), enabling greater supervision and control on the visual and aural effects, which are nothing short of brilliant, some of them never seen before in a Hollywood movie.

Pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technologies, Lee has made a new kind of picture, in which the scientific and artistic elements of filmmaking are so advanced and sophisticated that they blend into a coherent and unified vision.

When the history of motion picture technology is recorded, Fox should get a special mention for it was the very studio behind the innovative visual effects of “Titanic,” the 3D revolution of “Avatar,” and the CGI work in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which brought unprecedented emotion and depth to the character of Caesar.  Like Caesar, in “Life of Pi,” Richard Parker is such a fully-realized and accessible character that spectators would easily believe that he was actually A longer review will be published later today.