Never work with water, children, or animals. The conventional wisdom is that the first is too hard to film, the second is too hard to work with, and the third is just too unpredictable. Ang Lee's lushly gorgeous Life of Pi breaks all three elements of this adage and thank heavens it does. This film is many things - a adventure tale about a shipwreck, a story of spiritual searching, a coming-of-age story, a fantasy tale of man and animal - and yet it manages to take all these things and create a coherent whole from them. Pay attention to the layers of names throughout - "Pi" creates his name to escape an even more outlandish one that his school friends twist and mock, "Richard Parker" is not who you think he is, and really - what exactly happened on that raft? And to whom? At the end of Life of Pi, we have answers, but we also have more questions.
The film does not shy away from asking the Big Questions, including Who is God? and Do I control my life? These are questions not usually found in a PG movie, but one well worth taking children to go see. Not everyone celebrates the Divine in the same way, but I don't think that makes the path less genuine. Pi is searching for the One True Faith and he finds that the road isn't all that well marked. He is a resourceful young man who wants to live and discovers that requires a tremendous amount of work and fortitude - and not just when he's trapped in the middle of the Pacific.
In addition to the depth of the story, I was stunned at the out-and-out beauty of this film. There are several astonishing sequences that play up the sheer size of sky and sea as well as the infinite, and deadly, beauty of that seascape.
Further, I believe I may have seen a film in 3-D that does what all the hype has been about. In Pi, it adds to the story rather than jolting me out of it. Lee and his team use the effect of 3-D to add depth to the frame, rather than using the technology as a gimmick to break out of the frame and have things fly at the audience. In fact, the one time I actually jumped at the 3-D, an object - a very large object - was moving rapidly away from the screen into the back of the shot. Plus, the film lacks the muddy darkness that I've come to associate with so much 3-D. Maybe - just maybe - there's something to 3-D after all.*
*Then again, maybe not. One of the previews before Life of Pi was for the 20th anniversary release of Spielberg's Jurassic Park in - that's right - retrofitted 3-D. Sigh. I really don't like this sort of thing. I was against colorization of old black and white movies and for me, this falls into the same camp. George Lucas has made and re-made the original Star Wars trilogy so many times that T-shirts have actually cropped up reminding viewers that "Han Shot First." It's another example of trusting your storytelling. If that's good, there's no need to "retcon" the story with shiny new tech. And if it's not good, well, why bother with the expense?