Everybody’s seen The Wizard of Oz, right? American classic? Likely scared the pants off you as a kid? Had some truly awesome flying monkeys in it? Well, there’s one little flaw about The Wizard of Oz that’s always bothered me – none of it happened. I don’t mean that in the “it’s a work of fiction, of course none of it happened” sense. I mean it in the “it was all a frakking dream” sense. We’re asked to become involved in a story for two hours only for the big reveal at the end to be the entire movie was Dorothy’s dream.
I hate that as a story device, the whole “Oh yeah, none of this really happened” thing. What’s the point of that? What’s the point of doing that to the audience? Some friends of mine produced a feature film a couple of years ago in which the last shot in the movie suggests that none of the preceding 90 minutes had really happened. Really? Thanks for wasting my time and attention.
So, is it fair to bag on a perfectly good film just because the story lost its way in the last 5 minutes? I think it may depend on just how loopy the last five minutes become. But, a cop-out ending can really ruin all the good will and emotional investment a good movie seeks to create.
So, it’s from this point of view that I had some basic and fundamental problems with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
Let me first and foremost say that Life of Pi is, from a technical standpoint, a sometimes jaw-dropping movie to watch. To use some hackneyed critic’s parlance, it’s frequently “visually stunning.” Lee has taken a novel that many said was unfilmable and crafted it into a truly sumptuous experience for the eyes. I’ve been wanting to write a piece on 3D for several weeks now, but I want to wait to see The Hobbit in HDR 3D beforehand. Suffice it to say that despite its critics, 3D can be a phenomenal tool when quality filmmakers like Lee use it well.
The story, based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, centers on Pi, a 16-year-old boy in India. Pi’s family owns a zoo and decides to relocate their menagerie to the United States. While crossing the Pacific Ocean, their freighter sinks in a storm. Pi is able to survive in a lifeboat, but he’s accompanied by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. You don’t need to be Jack Hannah to know that a particular group of animals is not going to make good boatmates, and soon it’s just Pi and the tiger. I don’t have kids, so I don’t usually think about such things, but the PG rating the MPAA handed Life of Pi is kind of staggering. Some of the animal-on-animal attacks are surprisingly intense and will likely be upsetting to smaller kids. I found some of it upsetting and intense myself.
And, that’s pretty much the movie until Pi is ultimately rescued.
Yes, it’s largely episodic for most of its running time, but director Lee is able to produce some showstopping moments of pure cinema. There’s a sequence in which the lifeboat is overrun by flying fish that plays with the film’s aspect ration and is thrilling in 3D. Life of Pi should be seen theatrically and is worth that pesky 3D up-charge I’ve never fully understood.
And, hats off to the visual effects team for some really magnificent work. Almost all the animals are CGI, and the animation is nearly seamless. This is a big step forward from using CGI animals as performers in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The tiger is simply one of the most convincing CGI characters yet committed to film. This is how movie effects should work, to advance the story being told and not just being so much empty spectacle.
Up until the third act, I was totally onboard with Life of Pi. And then, they pulled The Wizard of Oz card. At no point does the film play the “it was all a dream” bit of nonsense. But, it is largely hinted at that the events of the story that adult Pi is telling a writer interested in his story have been embellished. In the end, Life of Pi never totally disowns its own story, but it was more than a little ambiguous about what actually happened. And, for me, that took away a lot of the film’s momentum and power. Were we not supposed to be emotionally involved all along? The film suggests a far less whimsical turn of events that may have played out on that lifeboat and then lets the audience decide what did or didn’t happen.
I saw Life if Pi yesterday, and I do have to admit that the more I think about how it ends, the better I feel about it. And, that’s a good thing for any movie, I think, for it to actually have some ideas you can chew on later and themes to revisit.