Director: Ang Lee
Writer: David Magee, from the novel by Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu
Length: 127 min.
With Life of Pi, Ang Lee contributes another masterpiece to his ever-growing menagerie. A director with the most kaleidoscopic of filmographies, this time Lee produces a fantasy-adventure that, without stepping into Middle Earth or Wonderland, creates a palette more fantastical and colourful than either. You might not believe in the almighty by the end, but you’ll be hard pressed not to believe in the power of cinema.
Life of Pi unfolds within the frame of a biopic, as the middle-aged Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounts his life to a mesmerised Writer (Rafe Spall). The film quickly chronicles Pi’s various youthful dramas: religious searching, love, death. Before long he must move with his family to Canada, but the journey is cut short by a disastrous storm and ensuing shipwreck.
Stranded on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and the 400 pound Bengal tiger Richard Parker, the film reveals itself to be a survival tale set against the backdrop of an almost spiritual Pacific Ocean.
It’s here, with the power-play between Richard Parker and Pi, that the film finds its footing. The beautifully rendered CGI tiger is a surprisingly emotive beast, as fearsome as he is a figure of pity and sorrow. Suraj Sharma, as the young Pi, valiantly holds his own against his green screen opponent.
Even without the narrative interest of this central relationship, Life of Pi would stand tall as a visual smorgasbord. The film comes close to eclipsing the benchmark set by Avatar (James Cameron 2009) for its use of CGI and 3-D. Much like in Cameron’s heavyweight, the 3-D effects are employed to bring us closer to the tangible world onscreen rather than to thrust those details in our face. The attention to detail is as apparent as it is immersive. This is especially evident in scenes underwater, where the sense of depth created by the 3-D further isolates the adrift Pi and consequently the audience in an ocean of both buoyant and sinking wonders.
Rarely is a film so indebted to special effects, but rarer still is one that employs them to craft a story of such depth. In a career that has spanned periods and genres, what has remained constant throughout Lee’s work is his superb craftsmanship, from the poetic dance of martial arts in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to the startling realist beauty of Brokeback Mountain (2005). Here again Lee fashions numerous unforgettable images: the mirror of a desolate Pacific surface to the grandeur of a starry sky; the majestic leap of a humpback whale; the maelstrom of a sinking ship.
It’s this poetic string of images that allows the film’s religious elements to take on a mythic quality. Though David Magee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel is a little choppy, particularly in acts one and three, the unveiling of Martel’s somewhat subversive commentary on the art of storytelling is daringly intact.
However, it is Lee’s creative vision and his gifted team of collaborators that embellish this story, transforming the written word into an indelible feast of visual craft. Rather than the clinical presentation of a film like Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis 2000), Life of Pi offers a sumptuous spiritual journey.