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'Life of Pi' Review: Ang Lee's Gorgeous Adaptation is Stunning 3-D Triumph

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 21, 2012 at 12:53PM

Is it possible for a wild animal to love a human being? And vice versa? At a time in the world when religion can be so devisive, Martel's story of a Hindu/Christian/Muslim who is the sole human survivor of an ocean shipwreck reminds that film can both heal and inspire. But it is also a stunning technological triumph.
Life of Pi, boat & rain

The film, whose budget far exceeded its planned $70 million cost, begins with a stunning series of shots of real animals in all their natural glory--at a zoo in Pondicherry, India (where the film was shot, along with a huge water tank in Taiwan). The movie revels in the lush colors and textures of India, as Lee sets up the movie's throughlines. His narrator, the adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn of "Slumdog Millionaire") tells his improbable survival story to a young Canadian novelist ("Anonymous" actor Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire mid-film). 

We meet Pi's family, who don't understand his attraction to three of the world's main religions, including not only Hinduism but Christianity and Islam, as well as the fierce zoo tiger Richard Parker, who ravages a goat in front of Pi's eyes. Pi's belief in both God and the soul of a tiger play out as he uses his wits (and a life boat instruction manual) to outsmart Richard Parker on a life boat for 227 days. "Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ," says Pi at one point. "God wasn't finished with me yet," he says at another.

As I suspected when I first saw footage at CinemaCon in April, this movie will play for critics, audiences and awards givers all over the world. It has the right elements: globally popular literary source (7 million copies sold); heart-warming family story from an A-list Oscar-winning director ("Brokeback Mountain"); and epic VFX. While "Life of Pi" will be a leading contender for Oscars, the film's technical accomplishments should certainly be recognized (especially "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" D.P. Claudio Miranda), as well perhaps as actors Sharma and Kahn. Richard Parker deserves a nomination as well.

One irony is that departed Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman backed this risky venture, but Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler and producer Gil Netter ("The Blind Side") also deserve credit for standing behind Lee's quest to make this remarkable film. "It has a gigantic visual effects component," Gabler told me as she was trying to convince Fox to give it the greenlight. "You can't put a live tiger in a boat with a child. It has elements of 'Castaway,' when the kid is alone in the boat. You don't need language to convey what's on the screen. We need to make the movie for the whole world."

That they did.

This article is related to: Life of Pi, Ang Lee, Reviews, Reviews, New York Film Festival , Festivals, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.