In Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” which is based on an award-winning 2001 book of the same name, a young man is stranded at sea in a lifeboat for months at a time with an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. And surrounding that fascinating and surreal aspect of this story is the life of this young man, his family, goals, dreams, and how it was all changed with a fateful decision and a doomed sea voyage.
It takes about 45 minutes or so to get to the intense storm at sea that sinks the cargo vessel Pi’s family is traveling on, as this story takes its time to set up Pi, showing him growing up until he is a teenager (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma), raised in a loving family of zookeepers, growing up in the Hindu religion but also following aspects of Islam and Christianity as well, content to pick and choose his favorite bits of each religion, as long as it still gets him to some sort of spiritual truth.
And as a narrative framing device, grown up Pi (Irrfan Khan, The Darjeeling Limited) is telling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall, Anonymous), and they explain more than once that this is a story that is intended to affirm a person’s belief in God (or at least one out of 350 million different gods), so all of the religious stuff is in the forefront, but it all pretty much amounts to “all religions are cool, just follow the ones you like the best.” Not much of a stand, really. But still, religious belief, faith and spirituality do play a big part in Pi’s life, and it’s evident several times throughout his journey and always comes across as heartfelt and earnest.
But in the end it’s all about what happens when a kid is stranded in the South Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a hungry tiger, and how they manage to coexist in an attempt to survive (though as you surely noticed, grown up Pi is telling this story to a writer, so we all know that Pi will indeed survive the ordeal, undercutting much of the drama, so really it is all just a matter of how he survives and why).
It is actually pretty impressive how the middle of the movie, the whole part on the lifeboat, is always interesting and constantly moving and evolving, because this is a huge swath of the story that stays in one location which doesn’t change (save for the different digitally created skyscapes), and it’s just the same two characters in every single scene and could have easily become boring and repetitious quite quickly. This is thanks in large part to the incredible effects work, namely Richard Parker, which pretty much seemed like a real tiger the whole time – as Pi develops a relationship with this animal, it helps that it seems like a real animal, making is easier for the audience to develop the same relationship, which makes every pay off even more.
Much of the movie was shot in the world’s largest wave tank, built inside an abandoned airport in Taiwan, with huge blue screen walls surrounding the tank – this enabled the effects people to put in very painterly skies and clouds, and it’s all done quite seamlessly. It must be due to the sheer size of the wave tank, which holds 1.7 million gallons of water, to make it feel like it’s actually happening on a body of water, though of course the expert effects work blending the real water with fake water and skies on the blue screen walls went a long way. So at the very least, this is one of the most beautiful looking movies to come out in quite awhile, and it scores on those points alone.
But the story is pretty good, so that helps, too. “Life of Pi” is a very good film, a kind of mainstream art film, which seems like par for the course from acclaimed filmmaker Ang Lee.
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