Note: Light spoilers for "Life of Pi"
If you're a person who watches television, you've probably seen the trailers comparing "Life of Pi" to "Avatar". This notion seems to have started with Richard Corliss of Time Magazine, who mentions the James Cameron film no less than three times in his review. But is the comparison apt? When we think of Ang Lee's latest, should we also be channeling James Cameron's Pandora tale? Let's break it down, tiger vs. Na'Vi style!
Four Ways "Life of Pi" Reminds us of "Avatar"
1. Amazing Visuals that Utilize 3-D
Let's face it, 3-D is usually a cash grab. Generally nothing pops off the screen, and no new ground is explored, with the worst offenders being the dreaded "post-converted" 3-D monstrosities. Even James Cameron hates those, which it makes sense, because "Avatar" is a lush visual delight. Thankfully, so too is "Life of Pi."
Ang Lee shot the entire film in 3-D, and the film boasts massive cinematic depth. The opening credits are a meditative wonder, and "Life of Pi" excels at using both the foreground and the background of each setting, making the 3-D effect much more dramatic and noticeable. "Avatar" also did this extremely well, and so the "Avatar" / "Life of Pi" comparisons make perfect sense on this front.
2. Both Films Love Nature in a Big Way
"Avatar" featured a bunch of mercenaries trying to find Unobtanium, crying trees be damned. "Life of Pi" is the story of a trapped tiger and a boy on a lifeboat. In both cases you end up pulling for the nature to "triumph," and the beauty of the tiger is similar to the spectacle that is the Na'Vi. Both Ang Lee and James Cameron are making a statement, and though there are degrees of subtle difference in the intellectual thrust, the end goal is the same: to make you sit back and in awe at how big and impressive the world they've created is.
3. Using a Heavy Hand …
The main failing of "Avatar" is that it basically screams "human enterprise is the worst!" for the last hour of the film. While one can't help but be impressed by the miraculous visuals, the message of "Avatar" is extremely unsubtle. Don't take nature for granted, or it will rise up and eat you. The same is true with "Life of Pi," a film that employs narration to hammer home its point (God), just in case you're not picking up the clues. Sadly, in both cases, the films are slightly worse off for spelling things out in so simplistic a manner. It's clearly a personal preference, but give me the questioning nature of The Coen Bros. or Christopher Nolan any day of the week.
4. Resting of the Shoulders of Newbies
"Avatar" was the project that put Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) front and center, while "Life of Pi" places its trust in Suraj Sharma (as Pi). In both cases the actors bring their "A" game, completely justifying their iconic director's confidence in them. Without Sam or Suraj, neither film gets off the ground, so kudos must be given to James Cameron and Ang Lee for utilizing previously unheralded talent.
But is that the end of the story? Can we label "Life of Pi" as the new "Avatar" and call it a day? Erm, not exactly.
Three Ways "Life of Pi" Diverges from "Avatar"
1. 'Pi' Doesn't Question Commerce
"Avatar" is the guy at the bar who desperately wants to talk to you about the latest conspiracy theory. The basic plot structure is put in place to have us questioning the trade-off we're making with nature, with the takeaway being that everything is out of balance. Not so for "Life of Pi," which takes pains to show us everything happens for a reason, and we're all God's creatures. "Life of Pi" is respectful of nature, but it's also fully steeped in humanity. Crucially, in "Avatar" you're pulling for Pandora, but in "Life of Pi" you're pulling for everyone. This is a massive thematic difference.
2. 'Pi' Gets Stronger in the Third Act
While "Avatar" is the greater technical achievement, the last hour is slightly painful. Not so for "Life of Pi," which ends much stronger than the opening hour would indicate. In truth, the middle sections of "Life of Pi" are slightly repetitive, so "Avatar" has the upper hand there. Overall, one could make the case that "Life of Pi" is the more fully realized story, possibly because it was based upon an excellent work of literature.
3. 'Pi' Lacks Broad Appeal
So yes, while "Life of Pi" is probably a better overall story, there's simply no chance for it to reach even half the level of success "Avatar" garnered. "Avatar" is the film you can take your sixth grade son to, and it's the movie that Grandma G won't be too perturbed by. "Life of Pi"? It's a more difficult watch, partly because of all the animal violence, partly because of its "Castaway" meets "Flight" vibe. "Avatar" is the film you'd find yourself drawn into on a Saturday afternoon, just because it's on. "Life of Pi" is the film you respect, for the stunning visuals, but pass seeing if someone invites you on a date to see it.
In the end, yes, "Life of Pi" and "Avatar" feature a few similarities, but quite a few differences as well. Strangely enough, there's much more Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "Life Aquatic") in the opening moments of "Life of Pi" than there is James Cameron - which just proves why the whole marketing angle of "Avatar" / "Life of Pi" exists in the first place. Essentially, if you look hard enough, and you're compelled by the need to make a trailer, you can find comparisons to everything, anywhere, all around the world.