Good films can be typified into one of two categories: tenderloin or rib-eye. A tenderloin film doesn’t flirt with superfluous subplots and flows efficiently from start to finish. A rib-eye feeds on visual spectacles and emotive revelations. “Life of Pi” falls into the latter, as eye-candy CGI and evocative narrations paint a stunning picture. Alas, like with any rib-eye, one must circumvent the fat.
Returning from a three-year hiatus, director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) delivers an ace direction of “A story to make you believe in God.” It’s a tastefully honest adaptation to Yann Martel’s accolade-heavy novel of the same name, which President Barack Obama openly tagged as “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Parents of defiant, atheistic teenagers should not expect spiritual conversion, because “Pi” tackles religion on the tangent rather than in-depth. Undying and unrelenting hope, however, is at the forefront.
Pi (played with resolve by newcomer Suraj Sharma) is a gentle, intellectual 16-year-old Indian boy whose name tells a story on its own. His entrepreneurial family architects a zoo, one teeming with zebras, spider monkeys, hyenas and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Shit nears the fan when they must sell the zoo animals in Canada. They hop aboard a freighter across the deep blue sea, only to encounter ferocious perfect-storm waves. Everyone — persons and animals alike — perishes, except Pi and a few zoo companions. Soon after, only Pi and Richard Parker remain on a lifeboat with their wits, hunger, agony and spirits to keep them afloat.
To most, a story to make you believe in God is a tall order for any believer or non-believer. Lee, staying true to his source novel, approaches this with man’s most thought-provoking fear: death. In an early scene, Pi’s father forces his son to watch Richard Parker devour a goat to demonstrate the sheer soullessness of a beast. Pi retorts, “animals do have souls.” This interspecific egalitarianism, unique to Pi, serves as his saving grace with Richard Parker. Death recurs throughout the film to reinforce Pi’s pluck in the direst of times.
Visually, “Pi” equates to a picture-perfect Thanksgiving feast. With a camera lens that seems to have no capacity or boundaries, viewers experience Pi from a quasi-godly set of eyes. Effectively illustrating the ocean as a calm sheet of reflecting glass, a story of suffering finds refreshing solace. A patient, breathing lens isn’t afraid to follow Pi underwater for several seconds or even bob above the surface of the ocean like a Coast Guard buoy.
Imagine the never-ending rainbow of colors in “Finding Nemo,” and then supplant animation with live-action. “Pi” accomplishes precisely this: turning a luminous unreality to reality at its most beautiful. The 3-D makes it all the more mouthwatering.
Sharma is gold as our protagonist, never handing us a faulty expression or underfed drama. He reminisces, “gods were my superheroes growing up,” furthering his profound spiritual link which bases his fight for survival. His trail to dominion over Richard Parker epitomizes the desire for both safety and companionship.
That pretty much lays out the lean meat of the rib-eye. So, about that fat? Many early characters play trivial filler roles, to no avail. They don’t propel the plot, add flavor or cause tangible discord. They suck. In addition, Pi’s religious devotions are barely scraped, whereas deeper probing could’ve justified the later thematic elements.
The fact is, we’re still eating a first-rate steak, not a half-chuck, half-mole rat hamburger. “Pi” succeeds as a delightful, appetizing treat, but not as a full-fledged character study. Good thing it’s not trying to be one.