Although not adding substantially to the written story, the film is an excellent screen treatment of one of the most fantastic tales ever told.
Ang Lee’s latest film ventures well into the fantasy genre with a spectacular 3D construction of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel “Life of Pi.” Although the film does not add substantially to the wonderful tale of a boy and a tiger, it represents a fantastic work of cinematography. There are numerous special effects, of course, but also commendable conventional photography. The overall treatment of water is, in and of itself, spectacular.
The film is narrated by Pi, who is being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall). The narrator is the older Pi, played by Irrfan Khan, and his voice carries through almost all of the film.
The teenage Pi, who finds himself adrift on a lifeboat with the tiger Richard Parker, is played by Suraj Sharma, who gets most of the screen time. The setting includes the mis-naming of Pi and the tiger and a general treatise on religion and the mixing, and mis-matching, of the leading faiths of the world.
Introducing the film at the 2012 New York Film Festival, director Ang Lee referenced the director’s homely never to make a film with “children, animals or water” and, of course, noted that the film was almost entirely composed of all three. The director knew he was taking the bull by the horns and he succeeded mightily.
The film starts with a conventional story line about Pi’s family in Pondicherry, India. His father builds a zoo places Pi in the untenable position of identifying more with the animals than with his boyhood peers. The business is prosperous but falls on hard times, forcing the family to plan a move to Canada.
As the family is travelling to their new life, aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Pi is introduced to various characters on board who are, in turns, malevolent and well meaning (Gérard Depardieu is incredible, as the French cook).
The general feeling is one of benevolent confusion, compounding the earlier naming mishaps and quirks of fortune. This sets up the ultimate chaos of the boy and the tiger who must learn to live with each other in order to survive. The overall message is one of tolerance and understanding. Although the film has some scary parts, it appears to be suitable for family viewing.
The treatment of the shipwreck in the open ocean takes the “Titanic” special effects one step further. The feeling is a combination of 2001’s “Spirited Away” and the story of “Huck Finn” in its combination of horror, loss and wondrous fantasy. As the ship’s lights flicker out of sight in the darkness of the bottomless sea, Pi is left to face his fate in the storm. Slowly, we discover the extent of his challenge as the day dawns.
Eventually the animals on the lifeboat are equated with the humans who make up Pi’s life. This coupling of human and animal spirits resonates with the underlying message of the film that is a common thread between all faiths, all people, and all other living things.
The ocean, itself, becomes a living thing, as does the island where Pi makes a brief landing. An incredible challenge in the making, the film goers a long way towards bringing the spirit of the book to the screen, although it may well do more to sell copies of the book than to generate overt buzz about the film. The imagination will always be more effective than the movie.
In the end, the concept that we are one with the world is linked to Pi’s description of the events to the unbelieving Japanese investigators. Although the film leads us to believe that the events on the lifeboat are true, the novel does a better job of confusing which reality is real. In the end, the only believable conclusion is that the story is different things to different people and that is as it should be.
The excellent special effects are combined with a wise and sparing use of the 3D format. The additional depth perception is used to amplify the depth of the sea and the depth of the story while not hitting the viewer over the head with special effects.
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Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan and Adil Hussain
Release Date TBD: New York Film Festival
MPAA: Not Rated
Run Time: 120 minutes