Much as I like Ang Lee as a director, it's fair to say it's been a while now since I've been truly transported by one of his films. Remembering just how striking his approaches at popular cinema (think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the flawed but intriguing Hulk) have been, Mr. Lee seemed to be the right hand to bring to the screen Yann Martel's best-selling novel about a young Indian boy's (Suraj Sharma) coming of age on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for sole company. And yet, despite the wonderfully lush visuals and state-of-the-art digital effects, Life of Pi never truly soars as one would wish; instead, it just drifts along amiably, even effortlessly, but also somewhat lazily on the waves of its own lack of ambition.

     David Magee's adaptation moves in an unfolding narrative structure: the story is told in a lengthy flashback by the now grown-up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to a blocked, nameless writer (Rafe Spall). The apparently fantastical fable of boy and beast being told before our eyes in Pi's voice turns out to be a slow reveal of a fiction that questions its own origin: is it fact, invention, or a composite of both? Merely a story being told for the pleasure of the tale, or an allegory of a larger, greater truth? Mr. Lee keeps his options open until the very end of the film (and even beyond), and there is much in common between the tale of Pi and many of the director's earlier works: the coming of age angle of a boy learning his way in the world harks back to The Ice Storm or Race with the Devil, the zen acceptance of fate and letting go into your own life reminds of Eat Drink Man Woman or Lust, Caution (sharing with it also the Oriental settings). But his lightness of touch seems more evident in the early moments of the young Pi with his family, or in the later moments of Pi on the lifeboat, rather than in the big visual effects scenes whose requirements seem to take some of the joy and intrigue out of the film.

     For all that, Life of Pi is not a bad movie; just an amiable but somewhat forgettable fable about finding your place in life, whose naïf tone is perfectly in line with the nature of the story being told but never really grows into the soaring fantasy it could be; a step up from the utterly forgettable Taking Woodstock, but not a return to vintage form.

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu

Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: David Magee, from the novel by Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda (colour, digital intermediate by Technicolor, prints by DeLuxe, 3D)
Designer: David Gropman
Costumes: Arjan Bhasin
Editor: Tim Squyres
Visual effects: Bill Westenhofer
Music: Mychael Danna
Producers: Gil Netter, Mr. Lee, David Womark (Fox 2000 Pictures, Haishang Films, Gil Netter Productions in association with Dune Entertainment, Ingenious Media, Big Screen Productions and Ingenious Film Partners)
USA/China/United Kingdom, 2012, 127 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12 (Lisbon), December 4th 2012


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