When done right, as in the Pixar movies, 3D can add depth to the picture, subtly enhancing a film’s visual appeal. In Hugo, Martin Scorsese skillfully used it to recreate the feeling of seeing motion pictures for the first time. And in Avatar, James Cameron used 3D to completely immerse us in a totally new world. It was showy, yes, but never distractingly so.
And then there’s the wrong way to use 3D, as evidenced by the unnecessary addition of effects in so many movies in recent years (The Avengers and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, for example), and the gratuitous effects used in cheesy movies like Piranha 3D.
Unfortunately, the new movie Life of Pi falls more in that latter category.
Adapted from the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, the film tells the story of Pi (Suraj Sharma), whose family is in the process of moving from India to Canada — along with all the animals in its family-owned zoo — when a giant storm hits, and he is left all alone in a 26-foot lifeboat, with a zebra, a spotted hyena, an orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Pi, despite considering himself a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Catholic, doubts his faith. So his survival is as much about getting somewhere safe as it is about discovering God’s power (or gods’ power, as the case may be).
Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), working from a screenplay by David Magee, clearly wants to make a more artistic kind of film, using the technical advantage that 3D provides. And in some cases, he succeeds: The opening credits, during which we get a tour of the zoo and meet all its inhabitants, is gorgeous. And whenever the action shifts underwater, it’s damned cool.
But the rest just feels … well, it’s just too much. There are scenes, like the one involving a whale leaping out of the water, that are more about the effect than they are about the significance of what’s happening.
And there’s another scene, involving fish that come flying at the boat — and the audience — with a ferocity that’ll make you duck for cover. Why? Because Lee actually cheats, and makes the picture shorter, so the fish are literally flying out of the frame. Is it a cool effect? Sure. But it’s a cheap one. It’s almost like seeing how a magician makes an illusion happen, and learning that it’s really just slight of hand.
The film is narrated by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, from Slumdog Millionaire), who is telling the story to a skeptical writer (Rafe Spall) many years later. And indeed, it is a fantastic, unbelievable story that should have led to a revelatory conclusion about beating the odds and finding your faith.
Unfortunately, lines like “None of us knows God until somebody introduces us” muddle the emotional impact and prevent us from giving the film our own interpretation. It’s as if Lee couldn’t trust his audience to make its own discoveries, like Pi does out on the water.
And it’s stuff like that — combined with the utterly heavy-handed and distracting 3D effects — that ultimately make Life of Pi an attempted spiritual journey that doesn’t pay off.
Lee may want you to come away believing in Pi’s story, but his film is so over the top that instead of being deep, it ends up wading in shallow waters.
Life of Pi left me feeling meh, and I’m only giving it a B–.
Have you read the book Life of Pi? Will you be seeing the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments field below.