Images trump words. This notion is a commonplace in film criticism. Cinema’s unique ability to represent time, space, and motion means that not only can a distinct visual style overcome narrative failures, but narrative itself is often best served by actions, not words. A movie can succeed in ways that can’t be captured by a transcript of the story (or a written review, for that matter, but we keep trying anyway). Two films about boys who survive shipwrecks with the help of wild animals illustrate this point in strikingly different ways. Their images are so extraordinary that they make exposition feel redundant, even though they’re both based on books.
The Black Stallion bears the distinction of being not only one of the most beautiful films of the 1970s, but probably one of the more enigmatic family movies ever made. The boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), says very little, simply going about the business of surviving after the steamer carrying him and his father sinks. Dragged by the title character to a nearby island, Alec struggles to find things to eat and marvels at the horse’s speed and power. Through diligent effort, he finally wins the creature’s trust. This section of the film is lyrical and focused, showcasing Carmine Coppola’s score and Caleb Deschanel’s breathtaking images of beach, water, and sky. The film isn’t the least bit preoccupied with getting Alec off the island, so there are no distractions from the graceful forging of a friendship.
Both horse and boy are eventually returned to civilization, though, and the film’s final act is much more conventional, depicting a race in which our hero is, naturally, the underdog. If I find the redemption arc of Mickey Rooney’s old horse trainer less than compelling, it may in part be because that story steals focus from the better one. Alec and “The Black” are now intimate companions. They share traumatic memories that no one around them can ever fully understand. Teri Garr plays Alec’s mother, another nearly wordless performance that captures a widow’s grief and the added burden of a sudden rift between her and her son. The “race of the century,” in which a wild Arabian horse ridden by a child (spoiler!) defeats two champion thoroughbreds ridden by professional jockeys, is less interesting as a sporting event than as a simple personal victory. The Black’s bleeding leg is the crucial element. Far more than a device to add drama (although it is surely that), the wound makes clear that both horse and boy need to outrun their own pain. The movie shrewdly avoids verbalizing that pain. We don’t need words to explain the loss and terror the boy has experienced, or the harsh treatment the horse has experienced. They just need the wind on their faces to blow it all away.
Life of Pi suffers from an inert framing device and a tendency to explain all of its themes. Where The Black Stallion explored a mystical bond with nothing but glances, Life of Pi tends to dilute those glances with voiceover narration. I see this as a relatively minor problem, however, considering that much of the voiceover is concerned with the specific tactics the title character employs to survive in a life raft with a Bengal tiger from his father’s zoo. That subject can’t help but be interesting. The tiger, “Richard Parker,” is the most impressive of the film’s many special effects, a completely digital creation that feels real and terrifying at every moment. The tiger alone makes the film a landmark, but Life of Pi also does unforgettable things with water. Water is the dominant force in this story, by turns inviting and forbidding, the giver of life and of death. Through reflection, the floor of the world mimics its ceiling, complementing the film’s cosmic themes by showing the raft floating among the clouds and the stars. Here, the natural beauty of The Black Stallion is traded for an eye-popping simulacrum — hyper-reality. The boy in the raft stands in awe of nature and recognizes many hands behind it.
The film’s early passages introduce us to Pi (played at various points by Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma, and Irrfan Khan) — the source of his name, his youthful exploration of religion, and some very standard stuff about a girlfriend he has to leave behind when his family moves. These things don’t add up to much, character-wise, but they set the stage for the film’s epilogue, which challenges the audience to decide between two interpretations of the story. Either the miraculous events that Pi describes literally occurred, or they serve as an allegory for the gruesome but naturalistic truth. Faith or science, in other words, and there can be no doubt but that the film considers the “faith” rendition to be infinitely more beautiful and desirable. As a proof for the existence of God, it’ll do until a better one comes along. But the very impulse to make this a movie about God’s existence shows a reliance on words and abstract concepts. The compelling, phantasmagorical images inspire wonder (or perhaps ennui — some of the New Age-y delicacy isn’t to every taste), but the film ultimately leaves us with a debate.
These are every little boy’s nightmare and every little boy’s dream — the loss of family and its protective cocoon, but also the opportunity to fend for oneself, to tame the wild. Stories for and about children work with fewer words, not only because the audience can’t understand very many yet, but because children’s concerns are more instinctual. They are closer to humanity’s deepest vulnerabilities. They are less familiar with explicable reality and more in touch with the imagination. They can look into an animal’s eyes and see a soul there. Adults know better, but sometimes we wish we didn’t. It shouldn’t be surprising that the adventures of Alec and Pi get somewhat spoiled when the adult characters get their hands on them. Rational thought demands that the two magnificent beasts of these stories can’t be left alone. They need to be sorted into some system or other. The great thing about movies is that, without even seeming to try, they can overcome these mundane conclusions through the force of their images alone. What we see leaves more of an impression than what we’re told.