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‘Life of Pi’ a rousing but self-important adventure tale

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Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 10:49 am

This certainly has been a rough year for discriminating movie-goers. The generally lackluster nature of 2012’s cinematic offerings has become all the more apparent as I wade through the catalog of potentially worthwhile titles I missed earlier in the year, in preparation for my annual top 10 list (coming early next month). Haven’t seen anything too exciting thus far, but I haven’t lost hope yet.

The multiplex scene seems more exciting these days, with a smattering of critically acclaimed Oscar hopefuls looking to help end the year on as positive a note as possible. This weekend brings us nothing of consequence, but nevertheless, a handful of interesting releases are still playing at the local friendly multiplex. (I missed “Lincoln,” but will definitely see it before the year is out).

I don’t know if you’ve been tracking advance reviews and word of mouth for the holiday season’s remaining “major” releases, but even if “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is as insufferably boring and borderline unwatchable as the buzz would have us believe, we’ve still got “Les Miserables,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and, of course, “Django Unchained” coming up, and they’re all getting fantastic notices. Reviews are forthcoming, but this week we’ll be taking a slightly belated look at another notable awards contender, Ang Lee’s admirably ambitious and intermittently breathtaking survival adventure “Life of Pi.”

I’ve never been quite sure what to make of Ang Lee’s varied, uneven filmography. He ranks highly among the world’s most admired contemporary filmmakers, and his name commands respect and reverence like few others, but he seems to lack that “personal signature” that makes so many of his contemporaries seem so much more exciting and accomplished. Perhaps this is a good thing — it has been said that the greatest filmmakers exercise their craft with subtly, and their style is muted to the point of being “invisible” (Clint Eastwood defenders, in particular, have always fallen back on this adage). Lee rarely draws attention to himself or his techniques, and the only common trait or theme that seems to run through his works is a preference for lush cinematography.

But he usually makes good movies, and God knows he deserves credit for that. His latest, an adaptation of author Yann Martel’s modern classic “Life of Pi,” is among his better films, and certainly the most technically impressive. Telling the story of a young Indian man who becomes stranded on a life boat along with a very hungry and unpredictable Bengal tiger — and in grand “hero’s journey” fashion makes some surprising and touching discoveries about himself — the film is a rousing adventure tale filled with gorgeous scenery and striking visual effects. (It should be noted that I skipped the 3D version, as I’m trying to save the retinal gymnastics for Peter Jackson’s reportedly vomit-inducing “The Hobbit.”) It’s kid-friendly to boot, and given the shortage of tolerable family-oriented movies coming out of Hollywood these days, parents should jump at the chance to take their kids to an actual movie instead of recycled animated cash cows. Just sayin’.

“Life of Pi” has garnered some heavy Oscar buzz, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s an old-fashioned narrative presented with significant modern flourishes, striking the perfect balance between classical adventure-tale charm and technological spectacle. Lee advances the plot with confidence and conviction, avoiding the narrative pitfalls of Robert Zemeckis’ similarly themed and unforgivingly dull “Cast Away.” And Suraj Sharma (marking his film debut), as title character Pi Patel, gives an award-caliber performance, carrying the entire movie on his shoulders as he anchors nearly every scene after the 20-minute mark. He’ll quickly be typecast on account of Hollywood’s notorious and rampant racism, but nonetheless, this is a tour de force for the books.

However, despite all these accomplishments, “Life of Pi” carries an air of self-importance that’s difficult to break through. The fact that the film is clearly head-over-heels in love with itself and its “deep” ruminations of the nature of self-identity and religious faith make it at times unapproachable, and it seems that a little humility could have gone a long way. Then there’s the ending, which is supposed to enhance and enrich everything that came before, casting the film’s events in a different light and illuminating the profound human truths at the core of the story. Instead, it feels like a cop-out tacked on by a writer who didn’t know how to finish their story —think “Atonement,” only on a much grander scale. A shame, because for the bulk of it running length, “Life of Pi” is exactly the kind of involving, inspiring epic tale that holiday audiences have been craving.

“Life of Pi” is rated PG for mild violence and mature themes.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jackjackgittes@gmail.com.

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