Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was long considered an unfilmable novel – and not without good reason. In the film version, the story revolves around a burned-out writer (Rafe Spall) who, in his travels, gets wind of a remarkable story about a man once shipwrecked at sea. The writer approaches the man, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), who promises to tell him a story that will not only awe him, but also make him believe in God.
We are then treated to a story starting in Pi’s younger years, focusing on his curiosity about (and eventual acceptance of) multiple religions – a practice which only exacerbates his pragmatic-minded father. Life takes a hard turn when Pi, as a young man (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma), is on a freighter with his family bound for America to sell their collection of zoo animals. When a freak storm sinks the ship, Pi escapes on a lifeboat with a small band of animal survivors in tow – including the fearsome tiger, “Richard Parker.” From there, the young man of many faiths must endure a trial of survival alongside his animal companions, learning many things about God and faith along the way.
Life of Pi is a cinematic tall-tale parable of the best kind, and stands alongside other acclaimed films in the genre, such as Forrest Gump and Big Fish. However, unlike those more whimsical tales, there is something deeper and more serious at work in Pi - but director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) manages to balance the serious elements with the fantastical ones, while making it all look truly spectacular (on a whole other level) thanks to his work in the 3D format. If you’re wondering: this movie is definitely worth the upgraded ticket price.
The fact that the film works at all is a minor miracle in and of itself. After an amusing opening (that feels very much in the same heartwarming and funny vein as Gump), the film segues into an epic disaster set piece before settling into its real identity: a single-setting drama where the stage is literally a lifeboat and makeshift raft, and our players are a newcomer young actor and an alternating mix of real and CGI tigers. Not a recipe for success, by most Hollywood standards. But Life of Pi beats the odds because of Lee’s masterfully versatile ability as a director; Sharma’s surprisingly strong presence as a leading man; and some fantastic effects work and animal stunt work that went into creating Richard Parker – who is sure to become another non-human movie character revered by many viewers.
Lee’s direction creates a wondrous visual palette for the film – from the earthy tones of the Indian and American settings, to the surrealist composition of the ocean sequences. Indeed, someone could run a filmmaking seminar on just the water sequences and their effects – and the 3D format is used to truly pull the viewer into the film, while firmly establishing the sense that Pi and Richard Parker are sharing a finite space on a vast stage. Specific sequences (like the freighter sinking or Pi encountering a whale in the midst of a bioluminescent sea) are enough to put most other 3D films to shame, as they offer a level of visual artistry that has hardly been matched by anyone working in the stereoscopic format. As stated, what’s so impressive about Ang Lee is not just his level of craftsmanship as a director, but rather his versatility: Hulk, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi are all very different films, but their respective visuals are all top-notch.
The collection of actors who play Pi at various ages (actors Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon as young Pi, Irrfan Khan as older Pi) are all charming and likable, but Suraj Sharma achieves a star-making debut as young man Pi stranded on the boat. This film lives (or dies) on the strength of its leading man and his ability to hold the screen, and Sharma rises to the occasion in every way. The camera loves him, he’s charmingly funny, and he’s reasonably believable in moments of extreme emotion (tragedy, fear). He even manages the difficult task of engaging an animal/CGI character in a way that creates a great chemistry between the two – which is something that even veteran actors have a hard time with.
As great as Sharma is, though, it’s hard to deny that the real star of show is “Richard Parker,” the tiger that is stranded on the boat with Pi. Created from a mix of CGI and four actual Bengal Tigers, the animal character is an alternating mix of house pet lovability and fearsome (at times frightening) beastly impulse. The switches between real and CGI tigers are nearly imperceptible most of the time, and technical awards are certainly in order for those who helped create one of the more memorable movie characters of the year. (Side Note: if you know someone who is a cat lover, this is the movie to take them to.)
Where Life of Pi falls short of “classic” status is in David Magee’s (Finding Neverland) screenplay. The tone is well balanced, the character and narrative development is lively and focused (a bit of meandering here and there) and Magee finds places to inject real emotion into the tale; ultimately, the problem with the script is a thematic one. The opening and closing acts of the film (like the novel) deal heavily with the idea of spirituality and religion, centering around Pi and his choice to believe in many faiths – a seeming contradiction for most people. The middle act (on the boat/raft) is meant to be a parable in which “the writer” character (and subsequently we the audience) come to understand Pi’s views on God and life – but this is where the film version falls short.
The problem is that in the middle act, Magee shifts the story to a relationship drama between Pi and Richard Parker, and though there is still some time devoted to exploring Pi’s relationship with God during his trial at sea, that element of the narrative is superseded by the boy/animal dynamic and an indulgence on Lee’s part in the visual composition. The third act of the story (in both book and movie) attempts to throw in a twist and end things on a cumulative statement by Pi, intended to bring all the elements of the story together into a philosophical point about the nature of God – but I don’t think that resolution has the profound impact the movie seems to think it does.
While Magee did a good job capturing the tone of the book and creating an interesting film out of a static setting, this is simply another case where the depth offered by a novel is somewhat lost in translation to the screen (specifically the spiritual elements that are explored while Pi is at sea). Time and reflection may help some viewers better comprehend the climax of the film, but others will be confused or disappointed with how things play out.
One could always make the argument that the movie version of a book is never as rewarding as the book itself – and while there’s a certain amount of truth to that, Life of Pi still stands as an applaudable achievement for Ang Lee, Suraj Sharma, the 3D format and the technical artists who created Richard Parker. If you aren’t put-off by the idea of exploring some new age concepts about life and spirituality, then this a film the entire family will enjoy during the holiday season.
Life of Pi is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.