Despite ecstatic reviews from critics at the New York Film Festival this week, The Life of Pi has met with a curiously grudging response from the assembled ranks of Oscarologists and awards-season prognosticators. “I think that is going to be regarded as a by the visual-delight-for-the-sake-of-visual-delight crowd,”said Jeffrey Wells, of Hollywood Elsewhere, but “as a by a significant portion of the family audience … and as .” The Hollywood Reporter’s found it “impeccably crafted” but, “while it looks to be a strong below-the-line contender, I'm not sure that I see it contending strongly in the higher-profile categories.” Fresh from that screening, Indiewire’s tweeted " seems destined for the slot: F/X-driven, sentimentally involving, respected director."
Wake up people! The Life of Pi is not just a strong contender to make the list of nominees for Best Picture but one of the few films that has the potential to go all the way. Here’s why.
—The 3-D phenomenon has been dying to crown a King. Ever since Avatar started the 3-D renaissance in 2009, Hollywood has been waiting for someone to enter latest cash cow in a dressage competition. You remember how far Avatar got in the race, only to be felled at the last minute by actors voting bloc, not so much because that they wanted to give acting gongs to The Hurt Locker (they didn't), but because Avatar was perceived to be about cartoon blue people. Last year, too, they showered Hugo with nominations but Scorsese’s film, for all its marvel, was a decidedly cold fish to anyone but cinephiles and silent film buffs. “Too good for kids,” was one verdict, which pretty much summed up why it failed at the box office. Magical where Hugo was mechanical, Life of Pi comes warmed by Lee’s characteristic empathy, tact and sonar-like ability to sound out hidden emotion. The tiger really wants to eat the boy for most of the film: seeing how they broker a peace, without cheating or recourse to anthropomorphism, is the genuine miracle nestled amidst it’s special effects.
—It offers Hollywood a flattering image of itself. A vitally important prerequisite for the Best Picture winner (and the reason, incidentally, why it will never be a Quentin Tarantino film). For 364 days of the year Hollywood grazes elbows and shins in the mad scramble to put bums on seats, and them, on one day, it puts on a tux and rwards itself for the innovative, artistically daring films it has spent the last year trying not to make. That day is known as the Oscars. Right now, the dominant genre in Hollywood is the “four-quadrant” family film with all the technological trimmings. In other words: kid’s movies, like this year’s Brave, Ice Age: Continental Drift, Madagascar 3, and Dr Seuss the Lorax. Even more than traditional action blockbusters, which play mostly to teenage males, the animated family film is the industry’s lifeline, right now — the thing stopping it from sliding into the Pacific ocean. For this, Hollywood is both grateful and guilty. Not many producers, when they started out, saw themselves going in the baby-sitting business. Reared on Godard and the Hollywood New Wave, they still see themselves as iconoclasts, and delight at the prospect of revolution — as long as it plays. Life of Pi squares that circle. It lends A-list auterist respectability to the main business of Hollywood right now. It brings redemption to an industry hell-bent on remaking The Smurfs.
—It offers a bridge between past and future. The ageing members of Academy are a backward-looking lot. They love films that evoke Hollywood’s past, like The Artist of The King’s Speech. At the same time, they are obsessed with tomorrow’s tracking numbers and fret endlessly about the future. They see all this technological change going on around them — digital paint-boxes, motion capture, motion control — and they want to reward all the effort and artistry, but how can they when what they are looking at, at the end of the day, is a film about blue people, or monkeys taking over San Fransisco. With its Booker-winning literary pedigree and roots in Aesopean fable, Life of Pi offers a reassuring bridge between all this technological whiz-bangery and the kind of classic Hollywood storytelling that gave us The Wizard of Oz or The Jungle Book. . A vote for Ang Lee’s film is thus more than just a vote for Ang Lee, it is a vote for all those Pixar movies that never quite made Best Picture, or all those Andy Serkis performances that never found a nomination. This time, all the technology has at its back a Big Theme.
— It is “about” something. The film celebrates many world religions — Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus — but the casual inclusion of Muslims in that list will play particularly well in Hollywood. Critics will doubtless complain about the slightly saccharine nature of the film’s pantheism, and the redundancy of its frame, in which the narrator chews over the spiritual overtones of his tale. But megaphoning your theme — particularly one as hefty as religious tolerance — never hurt a film’s chances. On the contrary, this is a great example of the kind of misunderstanding between critics and Academy members that leads to shock on Oscar night.
— Hollywood’s growing internationalism. At no point in its history, save perhaps the silent era, has Hollywood been more international in scope than it is right now, taking over 70% of its profits overseas. That is an industry-changing statistic. And you can see that change at the academy Awards over the last few years. Think of the 2007’s win for Slumdog Millionaire, a British-Indian-American co-production, or The King’s Speech, a British film, or last year winner from France, The Artist. “I'm not American and I'm not French, actually,” Michel Haznavicious told the DGA when he accepted his directing award. “I'm a filmmaker.” Lee has a greater claim as anyone to be at the forefront of this group of global filmmakers, which also includes Danny Boyle and James Cameron, who are evolving an international movie grammar for a global audience. Lee’s 2000 film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was pretty much the prototype. This not an argument for why anyone will vote for him, merely to point out that he may be on the right side of history.
— The academy owes him. After the monumental snub administered to Brokeback Mountain in 2006, when the Academy gave best picture at the last minute to Crash, Lee has been in possession of one of the largest Oscar IOUs since Goodfellas was beaten by Dances with Wolves in 1990. It’s worth noting that Lee did gest Best Director for Brokeback, but Life of Pi is a visual stunner, not the kind of film to split Best Picture and Best Director. The IOU pays up in both.
— The X factor. When all is said and done, the Best Picture winner must fulfill on the old promise: show ‘em something new. It is here that Life of Pi scores most highly, particularly when placed next to its strongest competitors, all of whom play generically inside the box: Lincoln (historical biopic), The Silver Linings Playbook (indie rom com), Argo (political thriller). Though it contains trace elements of previous pictures — Slumdog Millionaire, The Jungle Book, Castaway — Life of Pi feels genuinely sui generis. What is it exactly? A literary adaptation? a children’s fable? A 3-D movie for all the family? “I don’t get it,” said one perplexed movie exec told me in the foyer of the New York Film Festival last week, after the film’s debut. “Who’s the audience for this?” This could, of course, be its downfall. But it’s also why I believe that if it wins, it wins big.