Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: David Magee based on the novel by Yann Martel.
Starring: Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Irrfan Khan (Adult Pi Patel), Ayush Tandon (Pi Patel -11 / 12 Years), Gautam Belur (Pi Patel -5 Years), Adil Hussain (Santosh Patel), Tabu (Gita Patel), Ayan Khan (Ravi Patel -7 Years), Vibish Sivakumar (Ravi Patel -18 / 19 Years), Rafe Spall (Writer), Gérard Depardieu (Cook), James Saito (Older Insurance Investigator), Jun Naito (Younger Insurance Investigator), Andrea Di Stefano (Priest), Shravanthi Sainath (Anandi).
Life of Pi is one of the most stunningly beautiful films I have ever seen. I urge you to see the film in a theatre – on the largest screen possible, and spring for the 3-D, which for once is actually used to perfection. Even if you don’t think much of the story, this movie gives you an almost constant stream of beautiful images to gawk at. And yet, something was holding me back from truly loving the film. The rest of the film never quite rises to the level of its visuals.
The film opens with a middle aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) living in Montreal telling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall). We flash back to Pi’s childhood in India, where he was raised (literally) in a zoo. Pi was always a spiritual child, and could never decide on a religion. He was born a Hindu, but became a Catholic and a Muslim, not in place of each other, but at the same time. In the 1970s, Pi’s father decides that it is time to sell the animals, and head to Winnipeg for a better life (and here I thought people moved away from Winnipeg for a better life). The family and the animals are loaded on a huge cargo ship – and it isn’t long before the ship wrecks, leaving Pi as the only human on a life raft. He’s not alone though – there’s a rat, a hyena, a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. It isn’t long before it’s just Pi and Richard Parker – and Pi has to figure out how to keep the giant beast from eating him, and stay alive for months at sea.
The film is an extremely faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling book – it’s legions of fans will not be disappointed. It makes some trims, necessary for time reasons, mostly in the film’s opening passages set in India, but mainly adheres closely to the book. I read the book not long ago, and liked it quite a bit, but didn’t love it as much as many have. Perhaps, in the interest of fairness, I should mention that I am an atheist and so this “story that will make you believe in God” just couldn’t have the same spiritual impact it has had on many. For this is clearly a religious movie – a movie where the very real journey Pi takes across the ocean is also a spiritual journey – he has his faith in God tested, but he ultimately prevails. It’s not that I cannot be moved by religious or spiritual films – hell I named The Tree of Life the best film of 2011, but that film, although it ultimately confirms the existence of God (at least if you read the ending like most do), was really about a man’s struggle with God and his “mysterious ways”. I never got that sense in Life of Pi, either the book or the movie, that Pi’s faith is really tested that much – his faith is shaken, but he never really loses it. It doesn’t help that in the movie, he doesn’t get the same sort of running, interior monologue that he has in the book, so we are left more often than not trying to read the face of novice actor Suraj Sharma as Pi. Sharma is good as Pi, but not great – perhaps a little too passive at times. The bookending scenes of Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall are also a little clumsily handled – although they are mainly saved by Khan, who once again proves why he is a great actor. Mychael Danna’s score is a little overbearing at times, but it generally moving.
Yet, these are mainly minor flaws in the movie. Directed by Ang Lee, who has made many beautiful movies in the past (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Lust, Caution chief among them), but has never made a film this purely visually stunning before. The cinematography, by Claudio Miranda (who is used to working with special effects in films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Tron: Legacy) is one of the triumphs of the year. There are shots here that are simply stunning – the clear water of a Paris swimming pool broken by a solitary swimmer above being my personal favorite. The film’s color palette is bright and bold, fitting its narrative, both in India and on the ocean. The special effects are effortlessly integrated into the world Lee has created. Despite my problems with the narrative at times, I was never anything but fully engrossed in the pure visual wonder Lee has put on screen.
Even the 3-D works. I have mentioned numerous times over the last few years that I am not a fan of 3-D – I don’t mind it with animated movies as much, but more often than not, in live action movies it is little more than an unnecessary distraction. Life of Pi joins the extremely short list of films – perhaps as sort as Avatar and Hugo – of live action films that actually use 3-D well. Lee doesn’t use the technology to have a bunch of stuff coming flying at the audience (okay, yes, he does just that in the flying fish sequence, but that’s only one scene), but to add depth to his images. Overall, while I don’t think that Life of Pi is quite the religious experience Ang Lee and company were hoping for – at least for me – it is still one of the most visual achievements of the year.