The nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, Original Song, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
The film: In search of a story that he is told will make him believe in God for his next book, a novelist (Rafe Spall) goes to visit a middle-aged Indian immigrant named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) in Canada. Pi begins to discuss his life, starting life his name. Named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in France and being teased incessantly in school as “Pissing Patel,” he became proficient in memorizing the numbers of π and so nicknamed himself “Pi.” His father owned a zoo at a botanical gardens in India where the most prized animal was an adult Bengal tiger affectionately called Richard Parker. Intensely curious as a young boy Pi tried to hand feed the large cat raw meat before his father stopped and consequently scolded him. To prove the point of danger, he made Pi watch as a live goat was fed to Richard Parker.
Pi was raised a Hindu and a vegetarian, but at the tenacious age of twelve he discovered Christianity and Islam and decided to adopt all three religions to himself as to participate in loving God in all ways. As a teenager Pi fell in love with a girl named Anandi. But when the family came under financial strain, Pi’s father made the decision to move the Patel family and all of the zoo animals to Winnipeg, Canada. While crossing the Pacific on a Japanese freighter named Tzimtzum, a terrible storm sank the ship. Pi made it aboard a lifeboat and helped an injured zebra and an orangutan aboard as well. After the storm, a hyena came out from under the tarp and killed the zebra and orangutan. Pi yelled at the vicious animal in futility, only to be saved by Richard Parker who jumped out from under the tarp to kill the hyena. To distance himself from the meat-eating cat on the lifeboat, Pi lived with rations on a makeshift raft. But after Richard Parker ate the other dead animals on the boat, Pi knew it was only a matter of time before the tiger would get desperate and eat him. Pi was able to fish and collect clean rainwater to feed the tiger and eventually trained him to accept his presence on the boat. An odd symbiotic relationship evolved as Pi fed Richard Parker and feeding Richard Parker kept Pi alive. Weeks passed slowly. At one point near death, Pi and Richard Parker find a small island made of trees and inhabited by thousands of meerkats that Pi discovered was carnivorous after finding a human tooth inside a leaf high up in a tree. The boat eventually reached the shores of Mexico only to have Richard Parker wander off and disappear into the woods. A devastated Pi awakes to inquisitive insurance agents who are almost insulted in thinking they should believe that sixteen year-old Pi survived 227 days at seas with a tiger. Pi tells another story about his mother, a sailor, and a cook that they find more plausible. The novelist immediately recognizes that the two stories parallel each other, though Pi leaves him to decide which fantastic story to believe.
The odds: It is impossible not to impressed by this movie. The best-selling novel by Yann Martel had always been considered unfilmable as the Robinson-Crusoe derivation takes place in a lifeboat, carrying a teenage boy and a tiger across the Pacific Ocean. Yet after years of touch-and-go pre-production, writer David Magee and director Ang Lee conquered every visual and narrative limitation and turned out a most stunning and epically, beautifully magnificent movie as well as the next hallmark film of modern 3D after Avatar; other than the gloriously gory Dredd and the rerelease of Finding Nemo, it was the only 3D movie worth seeing in 3D last year. Indeed everything is so lovely to look at: the digital great blue ocean, the digital twinkling stars, the digital sinking ship, the digital giant floating acidic mangrove, the digital tiger…the CGI wonderland created to manipulate a horrifying situation into a state of dreamy tolerance is so engrossing that a person is more apt to get lost in the extravagant, pulchritudinous tableau than to pay attention to the actual story. Every nomination this film received is deserved especially for the technical feats as well as the glittery aspects such as the production design and the music featuring the Best Original Song nominee “Pi’s Lullaby,” a blissful and sweet tune sung entirely in Tamil by the dulcet voiced Bombay Jayashri, is a stand-alone treasure of unique lyrical deftness that sadly won’t ever get its due next to the magnetism of Adele. Lee, who previously won the directing Oscar for the polarizing and discriminated masterpiece Brokeback Mountain, fails not to bring his signature sense of wonder infused with delicate touches of both sobriety and drollery. The snare though is that, in spite of the scope and ingenuity, it will likely be passed over for the top prizes in favor for less distracting fair like its predecessor Avatar. With the explosion of 3D use reducing the technology to an annoying gimmick, even a movie engineered to be enhanced by it is readily and automatically lumped into that group. In this instance though such actions are justifiable: not only is the nominee in prodigious company but the priority of this film seems to be highlighting the CGI/3D pageantry rather than using it to highlight the story. Newcomer Suraj Sharma as young Pi, Irrfan Khan as a wise adult Pi, and Rafe Spall as the wide-eyed writer do so well with all that they are given, but imagine how much greater they could have been if the screenplay and direction contained even half of the spiritual harmony of the novel, the source material’s raison d’être having been reduced to learning to revel in adventure in the face of disaster and never losing hope rather than the power of the prayers and dreams and stories that keep the soul alive and fighting. All of this is not to discredit Life of Pi, but to point out that the emphases on the meticulous craftsmanship rather than the themes that make the story timeless and endearing puts it at a huge disadvantage…and that’s not even factoring in the consequent relegation effect of 3D.