Awards Profile: Life of Pi

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Directed By: Ang Lee
Written By: David Magee (Based on Yann Martel’s Life of Pi novel)

Cast: Tobey Maguire, Suraj Sharma, Gérard Depardieu, Irrfan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Ayush Tandon, and Shravanthi Sainath.

Synopsis (From IMDB): The story of an Indian boy named Pi, a zookeeper’s son who finds himself in the company of a hyena, zebra, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger after a shipwreck sets them adrift in the Pacific Ocean.

Why It Could Succeed:  Releasing at the very end of the year, Life of Pi, based on the beloved novel by Yann Martel, couldn’t be seen as anything less than “Oscar bait” if it tried. Martel’s stunning book that traces one boy’s spiritual journey of survival, with animals in tow, definitely conjures up Biblical comparisons to the infamous “Noah’s Ark” story. I’m not suggesting that The Academy is going to start attending Sunday mass, but I also won’t foolishly disregard the idea that a story with biblical undertones won’t ignite some curiosity from the more conservative Academy voters. Whether or not you’re religious, which I myself am not, biblical tales do tend to make for pretty spectacular movies, not counting Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Dreamwork’s The Prince of Egypt is one of my all time favorite films, and Life of Pi could fall into that same venue of a religious-themed film crafted beautifully, with transcendent spirituality that doesn’t overtly preach or condemn other doctrines. Biblical stories, at their best from my perspective, weave together a stirring tale of grandiose proportion that make for spellbinding films if adapted properly.

Biblical and spiritual appeal aside, Life of Pi is being directed by Ang Lee, who won “Best Director” on a film many believed should have won “Best Picture” that year, Brokeback Mountain. There are many moviegoers out there who want to see an Ang Lee film properly rewarded. After the controversial Lust, Caution and the underwhelming Taking Woodstock, it’s high time an Ang Lee project is embraced by the masses. Lee has the ability to perfectly balance vibrant aesthetics with intimate storytelling, where the narrative draws as much attention as the beautifully captured scenery. When Lee is passionate about a particular project, one that he likes and deeply admires, he gives it his all to formulate art in motion. Crouchig Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a gem, still my favorite foreign film to date, and if he takes a similar approach with respect to both Martel’s characters and culture, we are looking at the next great Ang Lee masterpiece.

Will 'Life of Pi' be Ang Lee's retribution for 'Brokeback Mountain's' loss?

Let’s not forget that Life of Pi has already been dubbed the new ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ by some early reports. I’m not sure if that’s a fair or accurate assessment, seeing as how one film centers on bustling life while the other focuses on solace and survival, but if I were 20th Century Fox, I’d be taking such comparisons as compliments. Given the success of Slumdog Millionaire, audiences and Academy members alike seem more interested in Indian culture than ever before. I’m not sure Life of Pi is the Slumdog Millionaire comparison they are hoping for, but with millions of copies sold and the same number of readers who absolutely cherish the Yann Martel novel, I’m not sure many people will be disappointed.

Why It Could Fail:

Life of Pi, as beloved as the novel may be, might have been better off released in an earlier year. In the early 2000s, the book was at the height of its popularity, but with popular book series like Hunger Games and The Millennium Trilogy captivating the nation on a constant basis, I worry about Life of Pi not getting the audience it deserves. I will firsthand admit to reading the book, but also to not entirely remembering the story after so many years have gone by. I will surely go back to read the novel before the film releases in late December, but Life of Pi might have been more anticipated had it been released a few years back. Say what you will about Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, but it was wisely released at the time when the book’s popularity was at an all time high, leading the film to gross far more money than it deserved. I worry that 2013’s Ender’s Game may be in the same boat as Life of Pi. Will audiences care anymore about books they’ve either moved on from caring about or just plain forgot altogether? One way or another, we’ll find out in December.

Despite 20th Century Fox’s distribution of the film, some may find the film too foreign for The Academy to embrace. Life of Pi is a lot quieter and more intimate than Slumdog Millionaire, and I worry that it’ll have a tough time breaking down international barriers with the way the story is presented. It shames me to think that even in this age, Americans cannot fully embrace a story that focuses on people of different ethnic backgrounds, but it does happen. Tobey Maguire is the only recognizable name in this picture that domestic audiences will be familiar with. Heck, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon falsely promoted Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat as the main stars, two foreign actors who were already household names overseas, despite Ziyi Zhang being the obvious lead character in the film. Tobey Maguire depicts a reporter in the film, but it’s unclear how much of a role he will actually play.

Awards Speculation:

Ang Lee isn’t a dead lock for “Best Director,” but I feel as though if the movie is acclaimed, credit will be given in large part to his direction. The Academy does love Ang Lee, and with an Oscar already under his belt, they could throw Lee a bone as a statement of their approval of him in a post-Brokeback Mountain world. Ang Lee’s nomination is going to weigh heavily on the film’s commercial success. Some people believe that if War Horse been a runaway hit with audiences, Stephen Spielberg might have eked out a Best Director nod. It is has certainly worked in the past for James Cameron. I have a gut feeling Ang Lee will make the final cut, but it really depends on how the film is received.

Can Suraj Sharma do what Dev Patel couldn't: Nab that "Best Actor" nom.

Aside from Ang Lee, Life of Pi does have a good shot at a “Best Picture” nomination. Its visual beauty, which I see as being amplified by Lee’s direction, will make it a film easily digestible if placed on the “Best Picture” nomination roster. That’s not to say the Academy is superficial, but aesthetic masterpieces do have their fans; just ask the voters who surprisingly gave Tree of Life a best picture nomination. The spiritual story does seem very universal despite its faith-based focus. Pi Patel is a boy who faces a convergence of beliefs, and just wants to know how to bask in the entity that is God. The whole message of: “let’s all be friends, find peace, and see the value of all faiths” may seem hokey, but it could easily pull the heartstrings of many Academy voters.

It’s a stretch to suggest that newcomer Suraj Sharma could be up for “Best Actor,” but I’m not going to rule him out. Dev Patel had small buzz for Slumdog Millionaire, but it never came to fruition. Sharma’s role, as evident from the book, is a bit more quiet and introverted. If Suraj can bring us to tears with the most honest of facial expressions, he may get some prognosticators talking. However, his anonymity may hurt him in the long run. Normally unknown female actors have had more success at landing surprise acting nods than males have. I’m not sure why this is, but history does not lie. Where have the Jennifer Lawrence’s and Carey Mulligan’s been on the opposite side of the gender spectrum? Demian Bichir could be argued as breaking that rule, but even he had some prior recognition from his role as Fidel Castro in Che. I also believe the way the film is structured, breaking up the actors who portray Pi at different times in his life, may hurt Suraj’s chances for singular recognition. Suraj can’t just rely on good acting; he has to be superlative and heartfelt with his portrayal of a widely known fictional character.

Life of Pi releases December 21st, 2012, and is being distributed by 20th Century Fox and Fox 2000 Pictures.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Actor — Suraj Sharma
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Original Score
Best Cinematography
Best Editing