Of all the movies I've seen this year, I think there are few scenes better executed than the ones in Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' in which Pi (Suraj Sharma) is stranded on a boat with a tiger. Lee is a very meticulous director and it shows in those scenes more than any other time in his career. He is working in the 3D format for the first time and he seems to be taking it very seriously, working very hard to establish the space the boy and the tiger must share and and what that means for each of them. The craft put in those scenes; the cinematography, the art direction, the visual effects, every single thing works in order to make it as believable and palpable to the audience as possible. If Lee wanted us to feel that we were on the same boat with Pi and Richard Parker (that's the tiger's name), then he succeeded enormously.
The sad thing is that the stuff surrounding those scenes just isn't very good. In the insufferable framing device for the film, an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells a writer looking for inspiration for his new novel that his is a story that will make him believe in God. There is a lot of symbolism and strong religious theme to the way Pi reacts to being stranded in the middle of the ocean with a large predator, but I personally didn't get why that was supposed to make me believe in God. The fact that at the end of the movie, (spoiler) adult Pi backs down and gives the reporter a different alternative story to what happened (end of spoiler), makes it even more confusing and rather simplistic. Should we believe in God because it is the more beautiful thing to do in such circumstances? I don't really know what to think of that ending. The only way I can interpret it is way too simplistic for an Ang Lee movie.
Ang Lee is one of my favorite directors. He seems to me, like a director fully committed to great storytelling (As a matter of fact, 'Life of Pi' is all about storytelling). Films like 'The Wedding Banquet', 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon' and 'Brokeback Mountain' are all great. And like I said before, he does some pretty amazing work in many of this movie's scenes. But it's just in some scenes, not the whole film.
I can't help but compare this movie to last year's 'Hugo', directed by Martin Scorsese. In both cases we get great directors working for the first time in the 3D format. In both cases there is something that captured the director's mind about the story. In 'Hugo' it was the life and magic of Georges Melies' early film work. In 'Life of Pi' it seems to be the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker and the many interpretations one could have of their adventure. Also, in both cases, those aspects of the film are wonderful, while the rest is rather lackluster. Scorsese is not really interested in Hugo's personal story and Lee isn't really interested in anything that goes on away from the boat. Especially the framing device with adult Pi and the writer, which is just SO bad. There is far more believability in a boy living next to a tiger for many weeks than in the way the writer talks with the survivor.
And still, besides Lee's seeming disinterest in half of the movie, 'Life of Pi's biggest problem is its script. The movie would be, in my mind, exponentially better if we didn't have the framing device. Not only because it is poorly presented, but because it tells us out front what to think and expect from the film. "This is a story that will make you believe in God" is such a poisonous thing to say at the beginning of this film. Concentrating only in Pi's journey, there are so many things to take out of the film and so many ways to interpret it. With the framing device guiding us, the interpretation is extremely more limited and it is just a pity.