One is a grand, sea-borne spectacle, a master's first glorious foray into 3-D. The other, like its breakout star, is a furious miniature whose impact far outweighs its size. But both "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild" are fervently alive to the world of nature, of spirit — two halves of the same double helix.
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), a spiritual wanderer stranded on a lifeboat somewhere in the Pacific, and Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), left largely to her own devices in a Louisiana Delta community suffering the slow inundation of rising seas, both bravely face a world of raging storms. Roaring forth their strength, each communes with the fantastical — nature as loud, bright, brazen force, frightening and painfully beautiful at once — and comes face to face with a future of natural disaster quickly becoming real. "Life of Pi" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild," with vastly different aesthetic approaches, nod at the same premonitions, childlike curiosity and rare understanding of the camera's power to show us what might otherwise be left unseen.
With "Life of Pi," director Ang Lee achieves a pioneering 3-D style, light and unobtrusive. In twenty years, or fifty, the technology will have moved on to bigger and better things. But we will recall Lee, along with Martin Scorsese (for the gorgeous, nostalgic "Hugo") as the D.W. Griffiths of the form. I don't discount James Cameron's "Avatar," but that film seemed designed for 3-D; the narrative necessities of "Life of Pi" force Lee to be subtler, using the depth of field to create multi-layered, fleet-footed compositions of which Renoir or Welles could be proud.
From its opening titles, amid a menagerie of exotic creatures, the film forges a rich aesthetic experience; a parade of flamingos becomes a forthright bloom of pink. Yet Lee is a careful craftsman, melding style and content to elevate "Life of Pi" above a stream of pretty pictures. When Pi, a vegetarian, kills his first fish, this beauty enters the story. It is not Sharma's performance in this moment that shows how much the act goes against everything Pi believes — it is the fish's otherworldly bioluminescence, flickering out into pallor.
With glowing jellies, peering meerkats, and the eyes of a Bengal tiger, "Life of Pi" narrows the space between nature and what some might call heaven. It is the breathing Earth that replenishes Pi's much-tested belief. "Doubt is useful," he'll recall. "It keeps faith a living thing." Pi endures his exile at sea, his knowledge that his family is lost, his momentary nightmare of bureaucracy, and emerges on the other side with his faith restored.
In this he resembles Hushpuppy, whose poetic stream-of-consciousness narrates "Beasts of the Southern Wild" through a child's dreamy perspective. Director Benh Zeitlin's vision of her world glows and buzzes, too: with sparklers splicing light from light, escaping into the dark; with the sheen of cracked crab; with the ambient hum of insects, leaves, and waves. She too must ride out the storm, a hurricane that threatens to fill The Bathtub for good, and stare down the beast that shadows her quest. That hers, the mythical aurox, lives only in the imagination makes it no less potent a force. Hushpuppy, like Pi, can only live by coming to terms with her emotional and physical environment.