(Ang Lee, 2012)
There are breathtaking moments in this film; Ang Lee remains capable of that much.
Mostly these moments are purely visual. If, in his best work, this filmmaker has shown the capacity to unite visual poetry with a narrative complexity and interesting characters, here the pseudo-spiritualism of the oversimplified story (for which we can blame the author of the source novel, Yann Martel) defeats him to some degree.
The first act of Life of Pi is a series of parable-like vignettes of the title characters boyhood in India, the lessons he learns, the ways in which he grows. He has a stern but loving father, a mocking older brother, and a saintly, beautiful mother. He falls in love with a lovely girl. The world is colourful, exotic, interesting, eternally romantic. Then he and his family move their zoo across the Pacific to Canada, the ship they are sailing in sinks, and Pi is shipwrecked, alone on a life-raft with a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. The rest of the film chronicles their battle for survival.
Lee remains a classy and gifted visual storyteller, and it is testament to those gifts that despite the cardboard characters and the ridiculous situation, Life of Pi is never actually boring. Indeed, the survival passages are quite gripping inbetween the many moments when he opts for sheer lush visual splendour, indulging in a series of sequences that look like they have come from a screensaver - the still ocean reflecting the orange sky above, luminescent jellyfish glowing around a gleaming whale at night, seas of meerkats, Pi watching the liner sink to the ocean floor from beneath the churning waves. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda does some fine work here, and he and Lee also combine for some inventive 3D shots throughout.
But none of that is enough for me, not from a director capable of so much more. I understand the attraction here and see the way the new-agey simplicity of the story can gain power until it is truly moving; to some. But for me, Lee has abandoned complexity and nuance here in favour of spectacle and a gooey glob of pure emotion, when previously I had always credited him with enough craft and intelligence to be able to carry off both. A shame.