Movie review: "Life of Pi" is Oscar-worthy

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(127 minutes; rated "PG" for intense drama)

(9 out of 10 stars)


By Tim Wyman

Given there has been some doubt, I am happy to report that the Oscar season is alive and well, and Ang Lee's new movie "The Life of Pi" has jumped to the head of its class.

Based upon the 2002 novel by Yann Martel of the same name, the plot is a fascinating and gripping story about how a 17 year-old boy is ship-wrecked at sea on a lifeboat and must survive with a real-life, 600-pound Bengal tiger for 227 days. As ludicrous as that premise sounds — I admit to readily suspending my disbelief in many movies, but this one seemed way out there — the uniqueness of the plot twists made it such that I found myself rooting for both the tiger and the boy even though they were seemingly pitted against one another for most of the movie.

The film opens with a wonderful backstory about the early life of our hero, Pi. The author and subsequently the screenwriter, David Magee ("Finding Neverland"), give us a magical look at Pi's childhood through a rather sublime rose-colored lens. The boy's upbringing in late 1960s, early 1970s India was really not much different than any American kid of that same time period. It evoked warm and familiar emotions and I found myself wrapped in the same blanket of my own childhood.

Shortly into the movie the family flees India and the 1975 "emergency" declared by Indira Ghandi and boards a ship toward Canada. The audience is then truly showered with such marvelous imagery and symbolism that we have many "ah-ha!" moments. It does not stop until the credits roll and everything we see is simply a delight.  

As the story moves forward the ship sinks, the boy is stranded with the tiger and some other survivors, and the movie gets all the more better. I found myself wide-eyed, saying "oh, I get it" many times aloud (thank goodness I went late and had a relatively empty theater).

The protagonist, Pi, is played by newcomer Suraj Sharma and he was blow-me-away-scary-good in this movie. The range of emotion, the depth of character, and the complexity of emotions that he gave the audience were simply stunning, especially when you consider from where he came. Before being cast in this movie he never considered himself an actor. He simply went along with his brother to auditions to give him company. Sharma beat out 3,000 other actors across a nationwide search of India. He now lives in New Dehli and is a philosophy student in the university there.

Director Ang Lee describes him best. "I saw this impressive face," he said. "It's a movie face — you can watch him forever — with these beautiful, soulful eyes. Wise. Curious. All of those things." 

The antagonist of the story is the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker (the back story on how the tiger got an anglicized name is rather charming). Filmed as both live action and computer-generated imagery (CGI), the obvious tension between the boy and tiger (and the question you kept asking yourself, "when is the tiger going to eat the boy?") was palpable. Having watched the 127-minute movie, it was shocking to find out later that the tiger and the boy never met and is testimony as to how good the CGI truly was.

What was unusually astounding was the stunning beauty that director Lee ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") captured from a seemingly boring seascape. Along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Fight Club" and "Se7en"), the beauty of nature was captured brilliantly — from amazing flying fish to a breathtaking shot of a whale to the powerfully magnificent storms and the lightning hitting the water. Truly this movie is a beautiful 2-hours in the theater and Lee makes it all the more impressive in 3D.

Given that we have had relatively few entrants into the "Best Picture" category for the 2012 Oscar season, "The Life of Pi" certainly moves to the forefront of this small group. Aside from any award consideration we might give it, I believe this movie to be a one that is a classic example of what good filmmaking should be. It was visually satiating with a good story that gave us quite a few plot twists. After the film audiences were left thinking and discussing what the author wanted them to consider. Even though those talking points were big life-picture items, I believe that to be all the better.

I give the film 9 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!