So innocuous is Ang Lee’s adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi that it can be hard to decipher just why it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There’s nothing here that will be remotely disappointing to most viewers, just so long as you’re not expecting Lee to abandon his blatant Oscar-hunger, or his perpetual tactfulness as an interpreter of “quality” source material, to deliver something genuinely surprising. All things considered, we should probably be grateful that a director who has languished for several years in a rut of middlebrow mediocrity has just made his most entertaining film in more than a decade and—thanks to an abundance of lushly imagined 3D—hands-down the most visually splendid of his career.
On the page, this big-budget castaway tale even seems designed to match up with Lee’s strengths, particularly his knack for skirting thematic heavy-handedness with a lightness of tone. The film could hardly be more buoyant, kicking off with a pop-up-book display of zoological delights: giraffes, monkeys, pink flamingos, and an adorable sloth dangling from a tree fill the screen with remarkable tactility as the opening credits roll. Capturing the endless store of optimism and good humor that made Yann Martel’s original novel such a crossover literary hit, cinematographer Claudio Miranda keeps us invested in the sensory pleasures of the natural world with an inviting, kaleidoscopic range of color. For better and for worse, this also means that no matter what extremes of suffering the titular hero (Surraj Sharma) has to endure, we’re never truly fearful that his life or the childlike wonder he endows the film are in any grave danger.
Born in Pondicherry to a zookeeper, Pi proves early on to be a precocious little transgressor of both natural and social norms. Enchanted with the animal kingdom, he incurs his father’s wrath by trying to befriend a tiger he affectionately calls Richard Parker. Before hitting puberty, he’s already caught up in a buffet-style spiritualism that finds him practicing Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam with equal fervor, much to the chagrin of his secularist parents. India’s political upheaval (mentioned in passing but—keeping with the film’s Disneyfied worldview—is never actually addressed) compels the family to pack up their zoo and move to Canada, but their trip on the high seas is cut short by a violent storm that sinks their ship and leaves Pi stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with an irritable and hungry Richard Parker.
The winds rage, the waves crash—and with 3D so immersive it seems to bring the ocean right up to your eyes, Lee milks a tired genre premise for every last old-fashioned thrill it can offer. Yet even as we’re swept up in the drama of teenage Pi weathering merciless conditions and improvising ways of keeping the tiger at bay, a number of factors prevent it all from adding up emotionally. The most immediate is a basic problem of characterization and acting: though Pi is likeable enough as a protagonist, he’s also aggravatingly static, stripped of all the idiosyncrasy and personality his earlier acts of childhood rebellion suggest. And as the sole human presence for the majority of the film’s duration, Sharma lacks both the charisma and the chops to keep us spellbound.
Perhaps more important, though, are the unconvincing ways in which this simple sea yarn attempts to stretch beyond its own limitations. First, there’s a pesky frame story that has a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) relating his adventure to a young white male novelist—a recurrent device that not only jerks us out of the action, but also has the unpleasant effect of turning the hero into an exotically wise, magical Indian. Even worse is a coda that makes a pedantic connection between this power-of-storytelling moral and a half-assed proof of God’s existence.
Amid all this narrative multitasking, the film remains emotionally inert, too busy maintaining a sunny disposition to evoke the anguish of its hero’s darkest hour. You have to ask yourself: what happened to despair and doubt and melancholy? Hasn’t Pi just lost everything he’s ever known: his homeland, the middle-class comforts he enjoyed there, as well as his entire family? Lee may not have it in him to stage an austere interrogation of faith in the manner of Bergman or Dreyer, but he seems oblivious to the ways in which people feel their spirituality. There’s something irritating about a film that so loudly proclaims itself as “life-affirming,” but that can’t even take a moment to honestly confront the human suffering that makes such reaffirmation necessary in the first place.