Adapting Yann Martel’s beloved, best-selling novel Life of Pi has proven a challenge many directors haven’t been up to the task for. From M. Night Shyamalan to Alfonso Cuaron, directors have dipped their toes into the ocean that is Martel’s thought-provoking fable, but just as quickly backed off. It wasn’t until Ang Lee came aboard that the project took shape, and while the Brokeback Mountain director may not seem like the most logical of choices, he proves to have been perhaps the only man who could do it justice.
Proving that 3D technology can be a powerful artistic tool, Life of Pi immerses you in a gorgeous pastel world that pushes the boundaries of CG animation. It actually enhances the film rather and draws you into the experience rather acting as an emotional firewall or a cheap trick to boost sales. With the exception of his underrated take on Marvel’s Hulk, Lee has never been one for flashy special effects. Even his Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was more practical than showy. But what Lee has always been is a director willing to step out of his comfort zone and take on challenges others are unwilling to bear. In a career that has been marked by excellence already, Life of Pi immediately ranks right up at the top of Lee’s greatest achievements.
Weaving faith and spirituality seamlessly into a grand adventure epic, the story follows Pi, a young zookeeper’s son living with his family in India. Inquisitive at an early age, Pi has already begun accepting multiple religions by the time he was 14, embracing the philosophies of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Through quirky flashbacks we learn his full name Piscine Molitor comes from his uncle’s favorite swimming pool, and that Pi’s father is an exceedingly strict and fearsome man while his mother(Tabu) is gentle and nurturing. At the age of 17, his family ups and sells the zoo, moving the animals across the ocean to Canada, but along the way they Mother Nature hits them with a perfect storm that shipwrecks the ship and leaves Pi stranded on a lifeboat.
There’s never any doubt that he survives, as the adult Pi(now played by the great Irrfan Khan) recounts his incredible story to a writer(Rafe Spall). Promising him a story that will “make you believe in God”, Pi’s tale is surely an incredible one that could shake or bolster one’s belief in a higher power. Stranded in the Pacific, a teenaged Pi(now played with surprising strength by newcomer Suraj Sharma) must learn to survive and not give in to despair. But he’s not alone, as a handful of the zoo animals, including an orangutan and a crippled zebra have survived the devastation. Unfortunately for them, so has the vicious Bengal tiger nicknamed Richard Parker, who immediately puts himself at the top of the food chain.
What follows an inspiring test of the human spirit as Pi must not only learn to live with his feral shipmate, but learn to tame him in order to survive the ordeal. It’s most interesting to watch the evolution of their relationship, crammed on that ship for more than six months, as the tiger is all things at different times. Sometimes Pi must rely on Richard Parker as a motivation to stay alert and resilient, while other times his nurturing of the tiger gives his life the purpose he needs. Parker is, in a sense, symbolic of faith in that he becomes whatever Pi needs him to be to endure another day.
Lee takes advantage of technology that would have made this film nearly impossible to shoot just a few years ago, creating a world that is both startlingly realistic and wonderfully imaginative. It’s nearly impossible to tell that Richard Parker is a CG creation, and the way Sharma perfectly plays off the tiger only makes him seem even more real. Sharma, who Lee found during an exhaustive talent search, couldn’t have chosen a more difficult role for his big screen debut as he’s on screen for the vast bulk of the film and must run the complete gamut of emotions. The film is full of animals of all sorts, from a magical island featuring thousands of chattering meerkats, to gigantic shimmering whales and literal flying fish.
Where the film loses some traction is during the moments between Khan and Spall, which are dull and lightweight, leading to an finale that doesn’t quite live up to the promise of everything that precedes it. Life of Pi will likely mean different things to different people, and whatever its intent it remains a spiritual voyage like no other.