‘Life of Pi’ Review: Ang Lee explores what it means to be human in a memorable epic
From the trailers to the cardboard cutouts, it seems Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ has been marketed as some fantastical journey. Although there are a few fantastical elements to it, this movie embraces a more grounded, humanistic approach and we are all better for it.
I like to think about this movie as a delicious, five-star quality three-course dinner at a place that specializes in dessert. The first act is an appetizer; nothing too fancy, but it whets your appetite for what’s to come. In this case, it’s the way Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) establishes the narrative: a young author, looking to follow up the success of his first book, interviews with a now middle-aged Pi in order to learn (and eventually share) his life story. Pi nicely establishes the bare minimum of what we need to know moving forward: the characters that make up his family, their financial situation involving their zoo, and his exploration of many different faiths. Don’t worry, it’s not as hard to follow as it sounds.
With that, Ang Lee delivers the main dish; this is what you’ve seen in the trailer: Pi stranded out in the middle of the ocean with a ferocious Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. What’s so tasty about this part of the meal is that it transcends your typical survival movie. Rather than focusing on where Pi’s next meal is going to come from, the story focuses on the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. It also speaks to maintaining faith as well as finding meaning in life during hardships. As Pi conveniently puts it in his makeshift journal: “My fear of him keeps me alert,” writing about Richard Parker, “Attending to his needs gives me purpose.” These are very human aspects that we all struggle to maintain in ourselves, which is what makes this main dish so enticing. Keep in mind, however, that this place specializes in dessert.
Once these human aspects are brought into the light and you think you’ve experienced the best of it, the dessert takes you to a whole other world with its deliciousness. In this case I’m talking about the “sub-twist” that comes towards the fin of the movie. Once you think you know what Lee and company are saying about humanity, they pull the rug out from under you and get you to think twice. Without spoiling too much, I just want to say that this is some of the best dessert that I have had in a long, long time.
For the sake of keeping this metaphor alive (or at least trying to): the visual effects and the performances are those dipping sauces you had with your appetizers, those spices that spiced up the main dish, and the chocolate that was drizzled all over your dessert, you know, those things which helped give your overall experience a bit of a kick? Rarely is a story enhanced this much by the use of eye-popping visuals (usually they’re just the selling point to a non-existent story, see Avatar for a prime example). They enhance the story by giving us something fantastical to look at during Pi’s narration, but the talented Lee always makes sure that the stirring performances and the grounded characters come first.
So if you’re spending a night out on the town and you’re hungry for a movie that will get you thinking about your own humanity and what you believe, then go ahead, order up.
What do you think? Leave a comment.