Taiwanese-born American film director Ang Lee’s career is difficult to pin down. He’s constructed nuanced and well-crafted dramas of various milieus and textures (from “The Ice Storm,” and “Sense and Sensibility” to the more erotic “Lust/Caution” and “Brokeback Mountain”) and orchestrated films of more action-oriented visual pizzazz and flair as well ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hulk"). Perhaps bridging all of his eclectic interests, Lee configures a lovely and winning formula for the dazzling and emotionally rich “Life Of Pi.”
On par with the 3D prowess of James Cameron's "Avatar" and Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," Lee utilizes stereoscopic technology to imbue the picture with the same sense of visual awe and wonder. In short, “Life Of Pi” is a visual marvel and an extraordinary technological achievement. But perhaps what makes the picture better than both the aforementioned 3D touchstone pictures is that character, soul and emotion are paramount in its mind over visual pyrotechnics. In fact, one could argue that, outside of a few stunning visual sequences, “Life of Pi” is not very reliant on 3D to tell its story, and that’s probably why the technology enhances the story, rather than elevates it.
Told in a rather conventional flashback conceit from an older man's point of view -- Irrfan Khan relating his unbelievable and harrowing tale of survival to an unnamed author played by Rafe Spall -- Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's beloved novel is dynamic and enthralling with a moving and life-affirming tone that is genuinely earned and largely escapes most traps of cloying sentimentality (don’t worry, songs by Coldplay and Sigur Ros are relegated to the trailer only).
Deeply patient, the central narrative of “Life of Pi” -- focusing on a sixteen-year-old Indian boy shipwrecked at sea in a life raft with minimal rations and an adult Bengal tiger -- doesn’t begin until 40 minutes into the picture, and while it’s somewhat slow going until then, the film’s composure pays off. Lee makes a wise decision to spend time with his set up. The fable-like tale begins and concludes in bookended fashion, with an author (Spall) struggling from writer’s block, tracking down an older Pi (Khan) on the advice of a mutual acquaintance, who shared that the elder Indian man has an unbelievable story to tell. Wise and mature with a serene demeanor, Pi invites the author into his home and tells him his life story: how a young boy named Piscine (after a French swimming pool -- Piscine Molitor Patel), became Pi and grew up in Pondicherry, India (akin to the French Riviera of the country) in the 1970s.
Pi’s family owns a zoo and animals are a part of their daily lives. The inquisitive boy explores various faiths (Christianity, Hinduism and Islam) in trying to understand the world, while his secular and more orderly father tells him to listen to rational thought as a true guide through life. Curious and searching to a fault, Pi learns one of his most important lessons when he attempts to feed the family zoo’s Bengal tiger (named Richard Parker because of a clerical error). Aghast, his father scolds Pi, lecturing him that the creature is an animal with no soul. “He is not your friend!” he admonishes while he forces the boy to watch what happens when the family goat is put near his cage.
Months later when financial woes trouble the region, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) decides to pack up and move to Canada; taking the zoo’s animals with him on ocean liner with the family, knowing he can sell them in North America. This section is told in a gentile fashion which is deliberately paced (read: kinda slow), but soon the picture picks up steam and actually begins.
Tragedy strikes when a disastrous sea storm of cataclysmic proportions rocks the Pacific, and after a dazzling and valiant fight, sinks the gigantic tanker to the bottom of the ocean. Visually, this sequence is breathtaking, on par with James Cameron’s “Titanic,” and arguably more terrifying due to the violence of the tempest that attacks the seas and boat. All that survives in a huge lifeboat is teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma), a Zebra, a hyena, eventually the ferocious Bengal tiger Richard Parker, and a gentle orangutan. One by one they pick each other off until all that’s left standing is Pi and what becomes a fierce adversary, Richard Parker, that he has to avoid, dodge and battle on a daily basis along with the elements, starvation, and these impossible circumstances.
A fully-realized creation, it’s rather astonishing how realistic and life-like Richard Parker is. He’s a living, breathing element of the story who eventually becomes the emotional crux of the tale once the animal and Pi come to an type of understanding and even, a strange friendship and connection, however tenuous because of the animals feralness. Played by newcomer Suraj Sharma, Pi doesn’t seem particularly special at first, but when the character is put through the paces, the thesp pulls from emotional reserves that are crucial to the story; more impressive when one realizes he is generally acting alongside nothing.
While perhaps not quite a slam dunk Oscar contender (as many pundits are clearly wondering), it’s pretty close, and there's still lots to love and admire from "Life of Pi.” The film is not without its problems, as superficial as they ultimately may be. One would be remiss if they didn't not address how the told-in-flashback narrative threatens to undermine the entire picture and at first this device is rather groan-worthy. But ultimately, it's not a dealbreaker. As 'Pi' progresses, the conceit fades into the background and a crucial emotional moment takes place in the picture's conclusion that perhaps explains why it could only be presented in this fashion. Additionally, as said, the setup will require some patience, and while the story itself also doesn’t reinvent the wheel, like other similar tales of survival (“Castaway” being the most memorable example), “Life Of Pi” thematically focuses on the endurance of the soul and the spirit; the need to never lose hope and thus survive even the most brutal of ordeals. Several of the film’s elements are hackneyed on the surface, the aforementioned flashback structure and the “if you don’t lose hope, life will be beautiful” platitudes, but Lee goes beyond clichés with a curious, warm and wondrously beatific approach to the “letting go” philosophy that reverberates. In short, its strengths far outweigh its minor problems. Making the familiar feel universal, Lee digs deep with every facet of filmmaking – sound, vision and poignant texture -- to create an engrossing cinematic experience that is ultimately emotionally involving and rich.
While its journey to the big screen saw many directors come and go over the years, and even leaving more wondering if the book could even be faithfully told, Ang Lee has delivered and then some. Deeply resonant and soulful, “Life Of Pi, is a harrowing journey of survival, self-discovery and connection that will inspire and awe. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review that ran during the New York Film Festival.