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How much CGI is too much CGI? Such a question floats to the top of the many deeper issues pontificated in Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s colorful adaptation of the Yann Martel best seller, written with David Magee. Pi is a gorgeous movie that provides a stunning look at the visual capabilities of cinema – but also the narrative limitations therein.
The title character of Pi, a nickname derived from Piscine Patel (Suraj Sharma), lives with his family in 1970s India. Pi’s father is a zookeeper who has instilled in his family a love and reverence for all living beings. When his family moves to Canada, they bring along the zoo’s former animals, with the intent to sell them as capital. A massive sea storm, however, sinks their Japanese cargo ship and takes with it all residents of the boat, save for Pi and several escaping animals.
On board a life boat, Pi must fight hunger, thirst, and threats from a hyena and a fierce, fearsome Bengal tiger, mistakenly christened Richard Parker, who has managed to hop onto the boat. (If you are worried that Pi’s life continues to be in danger, fear not; the film is structured through unnecessary flashbacks as rendered by his older self, underplayed wonderfully by Irrfan Khan as he relays this story to a young writer played with limited impression by Rafe Spall). Pi is a serious student of religion. So serious that he not only worshipped Hindu gods but also studied Christianity and Islam. (“I wanted all the God I can get,” he explains in a humorous aside.) And so Pi relays its protagonist’s Job-like story of survival. Despite his predicament and tragic losses, he remains obedient to a higher power and respectful of all natural elements, even those that imperil him.
Lee maintains an equal sense of idolatry for technology. Pi upholds Avatar’s cutting-edge visual sensibilities. Opting for a fable-like re-telling rather than overt reality, all images are heightened. The ocean sparkles. The sky looks more regal purple than royal blue. Richard Parker may sound utterly real (Philip Stockton supervised the sound editing), but at times one can tell that he wasn’t really filmed on the same boat as Sharma, and other beings, like jellyfish, whales and meerkats all have exaggerated features. The effect, created by production designer David Gropman in concert with Bill Westenhofer,
Guillaume Rocheron, Erik De Boer and Donald Elliott's visuals and Jean-Martin Desmarais work in the mechanical special effects department, is stunning, penetrating, breathtaking to behold, particularly in 3-D format. And given that Sharma is both a film novice and largely acted alone against a green screen, the young actor merits the film version of a purple heart.
And yet the film’s many achievements all remain on the surface. Pi comes limned with the parable-like thoughtfulness of its source material, but also the limitations therein. The film will either satisfy or aggravate fans with its faithfulness to Martel’s story, which went beyond faith and compassion to provide commentary – just as Ian McEwan’s Atonement did – about the God-like creative power of the storyteller itself. It’s heavy-handed, didactic, and results in a coda that undercuts many of the awesome pleasures that the movie’s central story has provided. You can watch Pi in any format you want: regular, 3D, even IMAX if you can find it. The experience will be a sumptuous and perhaps even enthralling adventure – but it won’t be an illuminating one.