Dave White, our resident film critic, doesn't just have opinions on new movies coming out; he's got plenty to say about older movies too. Every other Tuesday he'll be bringing a past movie to light as it relates to current movies and movie-related issues. Enjoy! Then go read all Dave's reviews.
Let’s say you’re stranded in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. We will say that. But if we spoke that first sentence out loud while standing within observable distance of you and the tiger, we’d see you get eaten by the time the last word was uttered. Tigers do that. They eat you. Unless, somehow, by some miracle of maneuvering, you’re able to avoid that fate. Then you crash your lifeboat up against a deserted island. That means now it’s you and the tiger on land. Where you will also be eaten.
In Life of Pi, none of this happens. Instead, the story’s tiger, named Richard Parker, and the teenage boy, name Pi (Suraj Sharma), establish a magically realist détente, each needing the other in order to survive. Obviously, this is not a story that could ever happen. It’s grand-scale spiritual fantasy, a CO-EXIST bumper sticker come to huge, leaping life. And you can ignore that touchy-feely stuff if you like. It’s dressing, really, not required for the experience of becoming enveloped in the film’s ecstatically beautiful visual poetry. The watery spectacle of Pi involves a combination of depth-plumbing 3D, spectacularly crystalline digital imagery and animal animation that surpasses even last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If you harbor warmly nostalgic affection for films like Jumanji, that’s fine; just don’t go watching it again right after you see this one. Pi is that impressive looking and those charging board-game-come-to-life rhinos will just seem even more jarringly bound to 1995 and that moment’s technical limitations.
Instead, let Life of Pi do what something new should always do: lead you directly back to something that came before, in this case 1979’s The Black Stallion.
The Black Stallion was executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Carroll Ballard, who would eventually become known for a series of distinctive, visually gorgeous, frequently moving films featuring animals intersecting with the lives of humans (1983’s Never Cry Wolf, 1996’s Fly Away Home and 2005’s Duma). Stallion starred Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, Hoyt Axton and 12 year-old newcomer Kelly Reno as a boy lost at sea after the ship he’s traveling on with his father (Axton) sinks. Washed ashore on an island with a wild black stallion, the boy must survive while forging a working relationship with the untamed horse.
In the world of G-rated “family” films, condescending to the cognitive level of the audience most likely to see those films is pretty commonplace. The wisdom was—and often still is—that if you make the animal talk or fly or able to play basketball, children will be more likely to pay attention. But Ballard’s adaptation of The Black Stallion sticks closely to Walter Farley’s original novel and aims for an earthbound realism. Ignoring the unwritten rules of kid-plus-animal movies, most of the film’s first half is free of dialogue. Why? Well, it’s a boy and a non-talking horse alone on an island, that’s why; conversation is irrelevant. (Tom Hanks talks more to that ball in Cast Away.)
Instead, the audience is immersed in Alan Splet’s Oscar-awarded sound editing and Caleb Deschanel’s spellbindingly beautiful cinematography (not Academy nominated, but the film did receive an editing nomination for Robert Dalva and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Mickey Rooney) and the imagery tells the story, more than effectively communicating the growing love between the boy and the horse, a bond that sees them through much more complicated life events after they’re eventually rescued and returned to the world of people who never stop talking.
Like Pi, The Black Stallion exists in its own narrative world, one where new modes of interaction between humans and animals are required if both parties in the equation are going to thrive. Pi, though, thanks to its 2012-ness, exists in a post-real visual world that was only getting its legs at the time of Stallion’s release, thanks to its inextricable connection to the process of digital imagery. As a result, it’s sort of bulletproof. Personally, it reminds me of the artist Jeff Koons’ most famous '80s sculpture, “Rabbit,” the stainless steel bunny cast from a mold of a blow-up Easter toy. You imagine soft reality living beneath the surface but up top it’s shiny and hard, reflective and beautiful as an object for its own sake.
That’s not about right or wrong, by the way. It’s just how movies are made now. And that impenetrable quality is one to which audiences have been steadily acclimating since before Star Wars (a film Carroll Ballard worked on two years before Stallion as a second unit photographer). But you won’t be able to ignore the visual evidence that The Black Stallion’s cinematic universe is one of entirely different textures and more old-fashioned, naturalist ways of seeing, one that will still be recognizable even when filmmaking technology advances to the point where Pi starts to look more and more like, well, Jumanji. Ballard’s is a filmmaking vision based on documenting breathing creatures as they react to the world as it is. See it back-to-back with Pi if you want to contrast the epic and intimate, the brash and the gentle. It’ll be like you went to wild animal film school for a day.