Ignore the tiger for a moment. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi
is a very simple story with a grandiose backdrop. For much of the film, we’re alone on a lifeboat, in the middle of the Pacific, with a boy and a Bengal. Rendered in sumptuous 3-D, the swoony special effects and churning waves create a palpable sense of motion. But the story lacks such pull. Based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, the film surrenders the book’s more subtle messages for ham-handed schlock and slack-jawed awe. And unlike better feel-good films, which slowly lock their fangs around your heart, Life of Pi
seems downright manipulative. It begins in French India, where Pi’s family owns a zoo. After some clunky exposition, the family loads its menagerie onto a ship bound for Canada, but a massive storm lands Pi on a lifeboat with the aforementioned tiger. Visually, this is where the film picks up: The ocean swirls with phosphorescent plankton and jellyfish, a shimmering whale glides across the frame and the starry sky blurs with the glistening sea. Such sequences call to mind those Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles of underwater scenes with glowing moons and rainbow-hued fish. Less successfully, they reminded me of the neon Lisa Frank dolphin stickers I used to slap on my elementary-school notebooks. As Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma deserves praise, and not just because he spends the majority of his scenes with a CGI tiger (which, it must be said, looks pretty realistic). But structurally, Life of Pi
is—like the one it features onscreen—a shipwreck. Tedious scenes of an adult Pi and a Canadian author (presumably Martel) frame the film’s dramatic center, making the allegorical conceit all the schmaltzier. When at sea, Life of Pi
’s grand visuals pick up some of the story’s slack. But back on land, it just runs aground.