How do you make a movie out of a book that contains virtually no dialogue, focuses on a single isolated character, features wild animals, and takes place almost entirely in the middle of the ocean? Just ask Ang Lee, who devoted four years of his life to bringing 'Life of Pi' to the screen. The mystical story of a courageous young man who spends weeks adrift at sea in a small lifeboat in the company of a ferocious tiger enthralled readers around the globe, but proved to be a highly challenging motion picture project, especially in 3D. Yet Lee, a visionary genius, worked tirelessly to craft a film of unparalleled beauty and brash innovation that captures the essence of the novel. Though the themes of 'Life of Pi' are well worn, its fresh, often dazzling presentation and superior artistry elevate the movie to a rarefied plane and make it a must see.
Shakespeare wrote "the play's the thing," but in the case of 'Life of Pi,' images speak louder than words. The inspirational tale surely possesses the power to move an audience, but the breathtaking visuals stir the soul. While I struggled to connect to the film's narrative and underlying philosophy, its gorgeous imagery instantly captivated me, and when I focused more intently upon it during a second viewing, my admiration for Lee and his crackerjack technical crew multiplied exponentially. Merging live action with heavy CGI is a tough enough task, but adding 3D to the mix ups the ante considerably, yet Lee's feathers never seem ruffled, and the elegant lyricism that drips from every frame of 'Life of Pi' - even during its intense action sequences - are a testament to Lee's enviable sense of space, motion, and composition. It's no wonder the film received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and won four Oscars, the most noteworthy of which was Lee's well-deserved prize for Best Director (the Ben Affleck snub notwithstanding). Almost all the nods came in technical categories, but that's where 'Life of Pi' shines the brightest.
There's not much plot to the film, as it focuses squarely on the survival struggles of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), the son of an Indian zookeeper, who finds himself alone in a lifeboat with four of his family's wild animals after their freighter ship capsizes in the Pacific during a raging storm. Along with his father, mother, and older brother, Pi was in the process of moving to Canada (with animals in tow) to pursue a brighter future, but when the ship sinks and all human souls are lost at sea, Pi must live by his wits, rationing supplies and learning how to co-exist with an untamed Bengal tiger, docile orangutan, crippled zebra, and pesky hyena. Challenges galore test his faith and will, as Mother Nature, the ocean's ecosystem, and the disoriented animals both aid and abet Pi's arduous yet strangely wondrous and spiritually fortifying journey.
In many ways, 'Life of Pi' reminds me more than a little of 'The Wizard of Oz' in the way it takes a rebellious adolescent on a death-defying voyage of discovery (via a violent storm) and matches him up with members of a different species. Pi's ceaseless efforts to combat dire conditions and ultimately find safe harbor mirror Dorothy's struggles to return to Kansas, and the two mature through meeting various challenges and conquering assorted foes. Pi even comes upon an Emerald City of sorts when he briefly lands on a carnivorous island that's a verdant oasis in the vast oceanic expanse. The movie's payoff also eerily resembles the denouement of 'Oz,' but I won't spoil that here.
And as 'Oz' was a visual pioneer in its day, so is 'Life of Pi,' which features amazingly beautiful (and Oscar-winning) cinematography and astounding special effects, including a CGI tiger that looks just as real as the sparingly used living specimen. The storms, shipwreck and fly fish sequences, and isolated shots of the seascape infuse the film with bountiful passion and artistry, while Lee's fluid camera work and well-pitched pacing lend it the lyricism of a tone poem. Whether or not you embrace the spiritual themes, 'Life of Pi' quietly feeds the soul in the same manner as a fine painting or work of sculpture.
For someone who never acted before (or even knew how to swim), Sharma files an excellent portrayal, perceptively exhibiting the gamut of emotions Pi feels throughout the movie's course. It's a highly physical role, but Sharma handles the stunts well. The rest of the cast (which includes Gerard Depardieu in a small, but effective, role) also turns in thoughtful, understated performances, but all of them take a back seat to Lee's virtuoso work.
'Life of Pi' is an impressive technical achievement, but it's so beautifully shot and presented, the wizardry becomes invisible and we lose ourselves in the splendor of the moment. The story may not absorb you, but the visuals will instantly carry you away. More than a celebration of the human spirit, 'Life of Pi' is a celebration of what movies can do and where they can take you, and from an artistic standpoint, this journey is unforgettable.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 3D edition of 'Life of Pi' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a protective sleeve. Three discs reside inside: the 3D Blu-ray, which includes the movie and exclusive 3D supplements on a 50GB dual-layer disc; the 2D Blu-ray, which includes a flat version of the movie and the regular Blu-ray extras on a 50GB dual-layer disc; a standard-def DVD; and a leaflet with instructions on how to access the Ultraviolet Digital Copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Once the 3D disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The 3D version of 'Life of Pi' is a testament to film artistry and the appropriate use of a controversial format. As Martin Scorsese proved with 'Hugo,' in the hands of an accomplished director, 3D can add magic and a breathtaking sense of in-your-face realism to movies that enhance both their sensory and emotional impact. Ang Lee is one of the industry's most visually inventive and elegant craftsmen, and he intuitively uses 3D as a storytelling mechanism, not a flashy gimmick. Like Scorsese, Lee knows when to push the format to its limits and how to almost imperceptibly employ it so it lends the image a subtle sense of depth. He also uses 3D subjectively, injecting it into the frame when Pi taunts the tiger with a pole, giving the viewer an entirely new and different, yet just as thrilling, perspective. From a 3D standpoint, 'Life of Pi' is a tour de force and a ringing endorsement of the format as an essential cog in the 21st century's cinematic wheel.
20th Century Fox honors Lee's vision and Claudio Miranda's Oscar-winning cinematography with a stunning 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 3D transfer that floods the screen with sumptuous color and presents an often dazzling 3D image. Contrast and clarity are letter-perfect, and the spotless source material and crisp picture quality allow us to drink in every detail, from the well-defined crests of individual waves and the spiky protrusions of the tiger's whiskers to the textures of delicate flowers and the grit of individual grains of sand. CGI work permeates almost every shot (the film also took home an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Visual Effects), yet it's seamlessly integrated into the whole, resulting in a well-balanced, smoothly constructed image.
The transfer does possess a decidedly digital look. Some long shots appear a tad artificial and a bit of fuzziness occasionally obscures detail in the frame's farther recesses. A jagged edge here and there is noticeable, too, but such is often the case in 3D renderings. A couple of scenes seem a little overexposed, but no banding or noise and no enhancements disrupt the picture's purity, and the 3D effects are as distinct as any I have seen on disc. A lizard's tongue, fluttering hummingbirds, outstretched hands, air bubbles in the water, driving rain pellets, an airborne whale, and, of course, a makeshift spear and attacking tiger all burst forth, breaking the screen's dimensional barrier with astonishing clarity. Rising water also spills over the screen's edge, a few shots through cage bars are highly effective, and the use of tree branches in the corner foreground add interest and increase depth of field. The fly fish sequence is another fantastic 3D creation, with fish flinging themselves every which-way. Even the dissolves exude a lovely 3D feel.
2D elements are also superb. The reds, oranges, and purples of flowers and Indian saris enjoy a high degree of saturation, while the verdant greens of landscapes and foliage exhibit a luxurious lushness. Strong black levels help exquisitely lit night shots flaunt a magical glow, and bold whites make a statement but resist blooming. Fleshtones remain stable and look natural throughout, and razor sharp close-ups show off facial details well. Underwater shots never appear murky, and reflections are gorgeously reproduced.
Only the aforementioned quibbles keep this superior effort from earning a perfect score, but despite the errant blips, 'Life of Pi' delivers glorious visuals to the home viewing environment. Along with 'Hugo,' it ranks as one of the best 3D transfers to come down the pike.
An active, impeccably modulated DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track immerses us in Pi's world and the vast seascape that engulfs him. From the delicate notes of the mystical, Oscar-winning score to the cacophonous shipwreck and storm sequences, the sound remains clear, clean, and distinct, balancing power and nuance with impeccable grace. A wide dynamic scale handles the highs and lows with ease, keeping distortion at bay even during intense sonic passages, and a broad sound field makes fine use of all the channels, enveloping us in music and effects, yet also providing crisp directional pulses when necessary.
Atmospherics are nicely integrated into the track, subtly caressing the rear speakers, but the sonic showstoppers occur during the action scenes. The howling wind, bellowing waves, and pelting rain swirl around and roll over us with substantial force, as the speakers fire on all cylinders, yet individual elements are properly prioritized and never compromised, ebbing and flowing like the tide itself. Bass frequencies are especially full-bodied and weighty, capturing the tiger's roar and all the turbulence of the rough seas. Accents, such as the tiger's claws scraping against canvas, are marvelously distinct, and the lyrical music score gently wafts over the room, exhibiting excellent fidelity and wonderful tonal depth.
Dialogue can be problematic at times. During the raging storm sequences, exchanges can be drowned out by the weather effects, and thick accents make various words and phrases difficult to comprehend. However, that's a minor hiccup in an otherwise flawless presentation. 'Life of Pi' is a celebration of the senses, and the audio helps make the film a thrillingly realistic and immersive experience.
A solid spate of supplements takes us inside this complex production. There's no audio commentary, which is a shame, but the comprehensive making-of documentary features plenty of perspective from Lee that makes its omission forgivable. All the standard extras reside on the regular Blu-ray disc; the 3D special features are included on the 3D Blu-ray and described in the high-def exclusives section of this review.
Anyone who questions whether Ang Lee deserved the Best Director Oscar for 'Life of Pi' hasn't seen this visually dazzling and technically complex production. The inspiring story of unshakeable faith, indomitable will, and ultimate survival touches the heart, but can't come close to eclipsing the manner in which it is told. With a keen eye and awe-inspiring wizardry, Lee constructs a beautiful and thrilling work of cinematic art that embraces the 3D format without being consumed by it. Splendid imagery is the true star of this hypnotic motion picture, and Fox honors this multiple Oscar winner with a terrific, in-your-face 3D video transfer, immersive audio, and a solid collection of both 3D and 2D supplements. If you own a 3D TV and Blu-ray player, you need 'Life of Pi' in your collection. For once, style does trump substance, and Lee's lyrical film is a sight to behold. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.