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Life of Pi's Clumsy 3D Storytelling

 “I think it's one of the most noble risks we have ever taken.” This comes from an executive at Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that gave us Sunrise, Shirley Temple, and The Robe. When a corporation has ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, talk of nobility is often a warning sign of stupidity. So sane producers may have read Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, seen that it was selling 9 million copies across the world, and concluded that there was no need for a movie of Life of Pi—the same escape clause I raised a week ago in connection with the latest Anna Karenina. Though, I will confess that I wouldn’t mind seeing a film in which the youthful Pi is cast adrift in an open boat with the great Bengal tiger and Keira Knightley in all of Anna’s pretty dresses. At least that’s an insane premise. The last open boat film to treasure was Hitchcock’s  Lifeboat (1944), the cramped quarters of which were enlivened by the unashamed queenery of Tallulah Bankhead, so Knightley changing her clothes from ballroom black to emotional scarlet and so on might have achieved some appealing madness. Whereas the makers of Pi assuredly believed they were in pursuit of awe and wonder, movie magic, the thing called art, and a most unfortunate piety (the proper destination of someone named Pi?) in taking on this daft journey.

This makes it sound as if I have read and enjoyed Life of Pi. Not exactly so. I have dabbled in the book as a reader, but only to test impressions gained as I listened to it on tape during travels that I often prolonged in order to stay with the experience of having the story read to me. Pi is Indian, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry. Time comes when father decides that the menagerie and its owners must emigrate to Canada. There is talk of Pi’s Ark. But the ship explodes, and next day there is Pi in an open boat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a 450-pound tiger that Pi names “Richard Parker.” There is the first suspicious taste of nobility. “Richard Parker” could be the honorary secretary of a royal society of Tory tigers. It is a lofty, solemn name, with hints of benign and distant authority worthy of Bambi’s father. Put it another way: this is a different story if the tiger is called Jose Jimenez, Pottsy, or Shere Khan.

You can imagine the adventures of Pi’s odd crew, the perils and the epiphanies, all in a test of survival worthy of Ernest Shackleton or Robinson Crusoe. Or you can see it in the mind’s eye as you listen to the story, and the multi-task of driving merges with the transporting pleasure of seeing that vexed lifeboat on your road ahead. But the mind’s eye is a precious place, and one that the mechanics and vanities of filmmaking enter at their own risk.

Fox purchased the film rights to Pi years ago. There was much talk of how to do it and who might do it. One can imagine a Bengal tiger and a stripling of a boy together on one boat in the middle of the ocean; indeed, it comes easily and sweetly and at the cost of $1.25 for sucking sweets. But to put it on film you run the risk of having the tiger eat the boy (and the crew) as well as the travails of setting up your filming operation in the middle of the Pacific—not to mention the bill for $120 million. It was a project that tempted many directors: M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There were scripts enough to make a cargo. There was surely a passing notion that the only way to do this story was as an animated film, or as one of those pas de deux where the true image of Bob Hoskins spars with Jessica Rabbit.

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Then a perfect storm loomed on the horizon: the assurance that computer-generated imagery could do it, especially if enhanced by 3D—and suppose the illustrious Ang Lee was given the assignment? Hadn’t he already done a picture with a crouching tiger? All more or less correct, though from Ride with the Devil to Lust, Caution, Ang Lee had been partnered with James Schamus as writer or producer. Mr. Schamus is not named on Life of Pi—instead the script is by David Magee, who wrote the pained whimsy of Finding Neverland (Johnny Depp on his way to writing Peter Pan), and there are ten credited producers, with Schamus not among them.

Whether or not Schamus could have saved it, the script for Life of Pi is a handicap. To start with, about the first 30 minutes are spent in Pondicherry establishing the family, giving Pi a girlfriend, and explaining his commitment to at least three religions. These things are a drag in the book, but they are doldrums onscreen with a film that should begin on the boat to Canada. After that, the novel has an ending—you could call it a twist, but it is actually an expansion—that is magical when it is read to you but tedious when delivered by a character on screen. That is why, I’m guessing, Ang Lee felt compelled to give his picture large shots of spiritual uplift along the way, instead of settling for literary sleight of hand and the mind’s greedy and suggestible eye.

And here we come to the most important point. Photographed by Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi has ravishing moments of color. (You may be reminded of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and The Black Stallion, which is the template of Pi and also starts out on a boat about to sink.) Pi has 3D, too. That may attract you and your children, but I realize now that if the cinema had had what is called 3D from the start I don’t think I could have fallen in love with it. (Civil engineering would have had its sway.) Some reviews say that Ang Lee has achieved the best and most beautiful 3D yet: there is one shot of a gaudy humming bird that seems to be loose in the auditorium. So be it, but 3D is still mood-destroying with its alleged goal: the sense of depth and space.

Such effects were delivered in movies as easily as the famous locomotive filmed by the Lumiere brothers. Audiences believed it was coming out of the screen. They marveled at the city in Sunrise, at the infinity of Xanadu in Citizen Kane, or the menacing depth of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. The artistic impact of those moments, and many more, was in the illusion managed in a two-dimensional frame while we believed in what we are seeing. Ever since The Charge at Feather River (1953), where one cowboy spits tobacco juice at a rattlesnake to put it off, and the dollop of brown saliva threatened us all, 3D has been laughed at as it shatters the illusion of reality. In Life of Pi, 3D is still an obtrusive layering of reality in planes that destroy a sense of the whole. The naturalness of seeing is gone. Couple that with our bored knowledge that the tiger can’t be a real tiger—let alone the legend of “Richard Parker”—and mere curiosity as to how they did it replaces the awed potential of why they did it. We do not feel the danger of the tiger, and often the trickery is clumsy: there are shots where the relative scale of boy and beast is glaringly wrong.

Veteran filmmakers will warn you, don’t film at sea and don’t work with animals. Ang Lee built a vast tank in Taiwan (his original home) and he whips up awesome storms, but he has botched the story and left a religious meaning hanging in midair, getting in the way of hummingbirds and ideas. Watching the water here is more rewarding than watching the characters. The engaging simplicity of The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, and Brokeback Mountain has been forsaken. There’s no tiger in the tank.