Writer: David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Gerard Depardieu, James Saito
Synopsis: Pi (Sharma) spent his childhood amongst the magic and majesty of his family’s zoo. He always wanted to feel close to the animals, especially the zoo’s Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker. However, as the zoo starts to lose money the family relocate to Canada, only to find themselves in a terrible storm on the way that destroys the ship and leaves only a few survivors – two being Pi and Richard Parker aboard a lifeboat.
Without special effects it is fair to say that Life of Pi would have been one of the unfilmable novels. Any attempt to capture the magic-realism, the human/animal barrier of communication or the eclectic earthly elements would have been feeble were it not for CGI. Those wondering if the CGI is too obvious, whether the 3D is distracting or the fantasy too elaborate needn’t worry; Ang Lee has brought Yann Martel’s book to life with precision.
Life of Pi deals heavily with the unknown and incomprehension – not your standard Hollywood motifs. Despite this, Lee brings his expertise on scenes of intimacy and spectacle making both a riveting Hollywood adventure film as well as a majestic meditation on the human condition and of relationships.
Bookmarked with a writer interviewing the eponymous (adult) Pi, the narrative criss-crosses between Pi’s young life and his older self recalling the disaster. With this structure there are occasional moments to catch your breath when the events on the lifeboat become increasingly dramatic. Presenting itself as a family film, Lee and screen-writer David Magee have structured the film as well as they could in order to dilute some of the peril. The book was, at times, incredibly morbid and dark (especially in the aftermath of the ship’s sinking) – not so appealing to the sprogs. With the film there is the opportunity for everyone to enjoy it (great pleasure will be taken with the meerkat scene, for one).
The first 40 minutes warrant a film of its own – Pi’s young life living in a zoo and exploring multiple religions in his pastime – adding soul to what will later turn into a story of struggle and survival. Once the cargo ship that holds Pi, his family, and his zoo, sinks into the abyss of the Pacific Ocean, the film transforms into an exhilarating epic. This is classical story-telling of some of the highest quality, with a visual palette that brings it beautifully to life.
The colour and clarity of the picture is remarkable, with an opening credit sequence that gives you only a hint at its overall splendour. The 3D that Pi’s publicity boasts helps the aesthetic enormously. Some segments in the first third make great use of the 3D but it is not until Pi and a partly-carnivorous crew become stranded at sea that the three-dimensional work comes into its own. Few films make correct use of the technology – Avatar and Hugo being two examples – and Lee has gone to great lengths to ensure his film becomes a leading example. The vast oceans that leave Pi and Bengal tiger Richard Parker striking figures in a sea of blue show the subterranean depth. Furthermore, the splashes of tides, raindrops or paddling drown the audience in the moment.
At the heart of this enchantment is the story of Pi and Richard Parker trapped together on a lifeboat. Depicting the ferocious animal believably has not been easy for the team behind the film and Richard Parker is mostly seen in CG form. Kudos to the special effects team, however, as the tiger’s 80% artificiality (some scenes included an actual tiger) is flawless. Resting the film on the shoulders of the scrawny teenager and striped feline is something very new. Fortunately, each character develops throughout the film and the relationship garners an amazing amount of empathy from the audience.
As Pi explains, this is an unbelievable story; the film’s success requires audiences to buy in to it accordingly. There should be little doubt in its ability to do this as every element draws you in. It is a tremendous story that has already been enjoyed by millions (to note a flaw in the film, the book obviously includes a lot more than the film possibly could) and now has an adaptation that has the winning styles and themes of Classical Hollywood. At points the film is a taxing – with plenty of religious allegories and moments centred on the dangers of hot-blooded animals and the harshest oceans – and may bore or frighten some viewers. Nevertheless, it is a heart-warming and thrilling film that epitomises the experience of the cinema and of great story-telling.
By Piers McCarthy. Also posted on LiveForFilms