The story goes that Ang Lee went to visual effects company Rhythm & Hues in August of 2009. Knowing that Rhythm & Hues was responsible for the creation of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia movies, Lee wanted to talk to visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer about creating the tiger for Life of Pi. After several meetings with Bill and company, Lee would go on to say that he wanted to “make art” with Westenhofer and his crew. After watching Life of Pi, I have to say they accomplished that goal in a major way.
Life of Pi is the tale of a 16-year old Indian boy (Pi) who, after surviving a shipwreck, finds himself stranded in the middle of the ocean. To make matters worse, Pi isn’t alone. Instead, he finds himself stranded at sea with the ferocious tiger Richard Parker, with whom he shares a 20-foot lifeboat. Despite the odds, Pi manages to survive 227 days with his feisty companion until finally reaching safety. Over the course of his journey, Pi and Richard Parker bond, overcoming the odds together.
Like many survival movies before it, Life of Pi examines the human spirit and the will to survive. Just how far will we go to live? What dangers and perils can we overcome? This is further intensified by the ending revelation, though not as strongly as it could have been. While I’m not a strict proponent of cinema’s “show, don’t tell” rule, this revelation was a case where Lee should have adhered to said rule. This isn’t the only time Lee allows narration to put a damper on the film. Using a structure that alternates between the teenage and modern day versions of Pi, the storytelling throughout Life of Pi creates a disconnect that neuters any real tension and suspense the movie could have since you know Pi will live. Even when our protagonist finds himself in precarious situations, we’re too busy being awed by the beautiful effects and cinematography to really be anxious for Pi. This disconnect also goes a long way to dampen any emotional impact, as you never feel like you’re walking in our protagonist’s shoes. Rather, you’re left in a constant state of feeling like a mere detached voyeur. This is all capped off with a “twist ending” that will simultaneously ruin the narrative portion of the film and give the movie some depth, leaving you introspectively examining your spirituality, humanity and perspective on life.
Where Life of Pi‘s narrative side drops the ball a bit, the visual aspect more than makes up for it. This is the real beauty of the film. The cinematography and visual effects of Life of Pi are done with such mastery that it transcends being just cool eye candy, becoming a true work of art and a beauty to behold. The tiger in Life of Pi may be the most impressive special effects accomplishment in the history of cinema. I’m sorry, but eat your heart out James Cameron. Through the course of the movie, you’ll find yourself largely unable to differentiate between the real tiger and the CGI tiger. In fact, you’ll be surprised to find out that only 14% of the scenes involving the tiger were made with the real thing. But the special effects don’t stop there. A masterful recreation of the volatile ocean turns these fake waters into a character of its own. From scenes containing tens of thousands of meerkats to the assault of a battalion of flying fish, Westenhofer and company exhibit some mind-blowing technology. And watching a bioluminescent whale spring forth from a sea full of glowing jellyfish will surely be a sight that leaves you in a state of wonderment.
If Bill Westenhofer’s visual effects are the icing on the cake, Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is the whole damn cake itself. Miranda’s masterful use of the camera elevates the jaw-dropping special effects to an awe-inspiring work of art, helping to contribute to the storytelling of Life of Pi. The vividly colorful and luminous cinematography creates such a surreal world that even Pi’s most perilous situations seem magical. One of Miranda’s most inspiring feats is creating a mirror of the ocean, whether it be reflecting the stars or fluffy clouds, leaving the movie’s characters suspended in this magical world, simultaneously emphasizing Pi’s helplessness in his vast prison while exhibiting the beauty of the world around us. Miranda’s overhead shot of a luminescent whale amid a sea of glowing jellyfish is the type of enchanting visuals of which only dreams are made.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma’s performance is solid enough to keep Life of Pi‘s flawed narrative afloat. And while the narrative is indeed a bit flawed, it remains solid enough to allow us to be swept away by the beautiful fairy tale that Westenhofer, Miranda and Lee have created. This is the real reason for seeing Life of Pi. Ang Lee more than accomplished what he set out to do when he declared his desire at Rhythm & Hues. Life of Pi is a magnificent exhibit of art in motion, which should be witnessed by all.