A remarkable film as original and inspiring and gorgeous as another of Ang Lee’s movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it fills the heart and the eye and never reverts to easy saccharin flourishes or platitudes.
It’s mature and powerful and has the courage to explore religious mysticism as a primary focus. It doesn’t pretend to imbue its animals with human-style emotion or bind the human with the animals in false ways. Trailers for the film do it a disservice. It’s far less “adorable” than it appears. It’s a strong story that recognizes life’s realities.
The well-known story follows Pi (Suraj Sharma) who is enroute to Canada from India with is family. They’ve brought the animals from their zoo at Pondicherry. One night, a hurricane hits, the ship is sunk and Pi’s family is lost.
He manages to scramble into a boat, with a zebra, an orangutan and hyena. Nature quickly overtakes them; the hyena kills and eats the zebra, then the orangutan.
But a worse threat has shown up in the form of Richard Parker, a majestic Bengal tiger. His body shakes the boat and his nature is terrifying and yet awesome in the old sense of the word. Pi saw him dispatch a goat at the zoo as part of a living lesson from his father about the dangers of tigers; he knows to keep his distance, but it’s hard considering the boat is a few feet by a few feet.
Pi constructs a floating island for himself from life preservers and netting, tied to the lifeboat. From there he keeps them alive. Am extremely shaky truce is reached as Pi uses his skills to collect rainwater, find emergency provisions, fish and Richard Parker assumes a restrained presence.
The journey of these two great spirits in their tiny corporeal boat is intensely dramatic and touching. They experience the watery world and sky together, Pi informed by Catholicism, Hinduism and Islam and Richard Parker in his raw natural state.
Lee’s direction is flawless and his visuals are strong and appealing. Whether saturated with the colors and sounds of South East Asia or the sea he rips the world open to us. Richard Parker is a huge part of that. Not many of us have been close up to a tiger and spent two hours with one as it paces and charges and gets seasick, accepts a man and sails across the Pacific Ocean.
Lee isn’t afraid to let the scenes of peril unfold the way they might in real life. So it’s terrifying and not just once but often, as the storm comes, the animals attack each other, Pi fights for his survival and Richard Parker’s.
The film is profoundly intense and upsetting at times. It’s a major emotional experience with spiritual overtones the sum of which is satisfying and exhausting.
Once again Lee awakens us, as he did with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from the pettiness of existence – and other films – with this daring masterpiece.
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35mm adventure fantasy
Written by David Magee based on Yann Martel’s
Directed by Ang Lee
Opens: Nov 21
Runtime: 127 minutes
MPAA: Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril