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'Life of Pi' at New York Film Fest: Awards Prospects Mixed (Analysis)

Latest from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee stars a virtual unknown, probably poses biggest awards below the line.

Life of Pi - H 2012

Life of Pi, Oscar winning director Ang Lee's big screen adaptation of Yann Martel's acclaimed novel, opened the 50th New York Film Festival last night. The film, which 20th Century Fox will release nationwide on Nov. 21, was greeted with considerable applause inside Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall and generally favorable reviews (including one from THR's film critic Todd McCarthy, one of the NYFF's five selection committee members for the third year in a row). But despite that, and the fact that the buses that transported festivalgoers from the premiere screening to the after-party at the Harvard Club were marked "Academy," I must confess that I am skeptical about its Oscar prospects.

There's no question that the film, which recounts the story of a young Indian man and several zoo animals who wind up aboard the same liferaft after a shipwreck, is impeccably crafted. That's always the case with films directed by Lee, the 57-year-old Taiwanese-American modern master who is best known for The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). This one's top-quality production values include beautiful cinematography (including vibrantly colorful shots by Claudio Miranda) and seamless visual effects (the zoo animals are so realistic that it's easy to forget that they're not actually in the boat with the kid), not to mention a memorable original score (from Mychael Danna).

STORY: Tobey Maguire cut from Oscar contender 'Life of Pi'

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. To my eye it is, frankly, uneven -- its pacing is off, it feels too long, and its third-act twist is something between confusing and aggravating. I suspect that those who check it out will, by and large, come away from it feeling respect more than passion, which is the key to cracking into the best picture race under the new voting system (as opposed to the old one which rewarded widespread support). In short, I think it will face an uphill climb for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay noms.

The film's star, Suraj Sharma, is a newcomer/virtual unknown who was reportedly chosen from over 3,000 people who auditioned for the part, clearly put his heart and soul into the project, and lost a considerable amount of weight in the process -- but nobody will mistake him for Tom Hanks in Castaway; he is more like Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel, wide-eyed and charming but not especially polished. This being the case, I believe that he, too, is a long-shot for awards recognition, especially in a year in which the best actor category is jam-packed.

My sense from talking to a wide cross-section of the industry at the post-screening party is that virtually everyone liked the film, but few loved it, and that makes it a tough awards sell.