It’ll be interesting to see how audiences who haven’t read Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2001 novel respond to director Ang Lee’s vision of the colorful tale. Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel is a twice-strangely-monikered, religiously insatiable 16-year-old Indian boy immigrating by freighter from Pondicherry to Canada with his parents, brother and the animal inhabitants of their family zoo who finds himself the sole human survivor of a shipwreck at sea.
The book is a rare hybrid: gripping survival thriller crossed with metaphysics and theology. That hybrid paid off in spades: it was both a runaway best-selling and massive award winner, starting with the Man Booker Prize in the UK. The story is bold and fantastical, yet as I remember it also dwelled for long, engaging stretches on the tedium and loneliness of sole survival at sea, with the world narrowed to Pi’s all-consuming counting of the cans of potable water and the packets of sea biscuits.
That quieter, more contemplative tale has been blown to into spectacular, splendiferous fireworks in Lee’s visually sumptuous epic, which very certainly makes the most artistic and emotional use of 3D technology thus far. Suddenly all that was limited by the reader’s imagination in the book magnifies onscreen, from the terrifyingly violent storm that swallows the immense freighter to the ocean’s vastness as Pi floats alone in the lifeboat. Or nearly alone. For after a horrific early sequence of the food chain made manifest, involving a hyena, giraffe and orangutan, it is soon only Pi and the zoo’s star, a massive Bengal tiger in the prime of years named Richard Parker.
From there the story becomes a matter of life and death. How does Pi not become Richard Parker’s next meal? How does he bear the hardship and terror of nearly a year alone at sea, at the mercy of the elements and Richard Parker? The CGI tiger is a wonder to behold, but much depends on the young unknown actor who plays Pi. Lee picked a winner with Suraj Sharma, who holds our interest and sympathy in every shot.
Sharma holds his own not only with Richard Parker but with the multiple scenes of glory and beauty that Lee mounts for our edification and enjoyment. From whales to sharks to phosphorescent creatures to a mysterious living island to the majesty of the sky and ocean, this movie dazzles. It must be seen on the big screen and in 3D.
However, the book had its weak points and they too are magnified in the film. The frame device of middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) relating his story to the young Canadian writer was a harmless self-indulgent folly in the book, easily skimmed and overlooked. However, it becomes an annoying recurring scene in the movie, in which the contents of the adult Pi’s apartment becoming all too familiar and the close-ups of Rafe Spall, the young actor who plays the Writer, becoming an increasingly irritating and insipid interruption. I’d happily watch this movie again if only those parts could be edited out.
Without a doubt the movie would be stronger for it. The inclusion of Gerard Depardieu in a tiny role is also a weird distraction. I also found the conundrum of an ending even sillier and more juvenile in the film than in the book. But none of that detracts from Lee’s incredible visual imagination. Now let’s see whether this film directed by a Chinese national and starring an unknown Indian actor will be able to find any box office traction this holiday season.