Lee’s visually astonishing cinematic fable Life of Pi – based on the Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel – creates something of a critical quandary. At least it does for me. Watching the film I was swept away with so much force by the visual style and undeniable technical achievement that it was almost too easy to ignore a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction with the way the film presents BIG questions about God, faith, humanity and rationality and deals with them in a way that is terribly insubstantial.
Martel’s novel was commonly regarded as "unfilmable" but its combination of literary kudos and healthy sales has long attracted the Hollywood sharks. Various directors have been attached to the adaptation since the book’s publication in 2002 – including, at one point, M Night Shyamalan – but it has taken the brilliant Taiwanese director Lee to wrestle the beast onto the screen. The result is a qualified success.
The story is framed as a conversation between a writer (Spall) and Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel (Irrfan Kahn), an Indian man living in Canada. The writer is looking for a story and Pi certainly has one. In fact, he has several, including the strange origin of his nickname and his early life in Pondicherry, India, where his father operated a zoo. The real story begins when Pi’s father sells the zoo animals and plans to have his family emigrate to Canada. The animals are loaded onto a freighter and the family sets sail. Catastrophe strikes when the ship sinks in heavy seas and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a few sodden animals and a fully grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
This may sound like the set-up for a Disney family adventure, but it isn’t. Despite its human name (the result of a clerical error), Richard Parker is not an anthropomorphised creature. The animals don’t talk, and there follow some inevitable scenes that may be upsetting for children of a sensitive (read "mollycoddled") nature. So parents be warned, this isn’t The Lion King with stripes.
The visual effects (the tiger and the lifeboat section of the film forms the vast majority of the running time) are nothing short of awe inspiring. In particular, the CGI realisation of Richard Parker, which is the most impressive simulation of an animal I have ever seen (clearly a real tiger is involved in some places, but I defy you to be able to tell which is which). This is not a fantastical creation; it looks like a real tiger, and a bloody annoyed one most of the time. Consider Lee forgiven for the CGI folly of Hulk.
Lee is a director who throughout his career has made films of sensitivity and humanity. Pi is no exception. Pi is played by four actors at various stages in his life – Belur as a child, Tandon as an adolescent, Sharma as a young man and the aforementioned Kahn as an adult. All the actors are terrific. Sharma has the most screen time, and manages to hold his own against the scene stealing tiger. The only real bum note is Spall’s unconvincing American/Canadian accent. There is also a fleeting cameo by Depardieu turning up as a racist cook which is a little distracting.
Ultimately, this story is a parable. Pi is raised as a Hindu, but when he encounters Christianity and Islam in adolescence he decides to follow all three religions, much to the displeasure of his rationalist father. Pi tells the writer that his story will make him believe in God, and the trials and tribulations that befall him as he is cast adrift on the ocean certainly qualify as "biblical". But this is also where the film falters. The ending pulls a trick (which I won’t reveal) that may have worked in a literary context, but feels somewhat underhand in a cinematic one. Life of Pi asks a question that feels important, but the film is playing with a loaded deck that leads to the answer it wants you to give.
When Pi reveals he is following three religions to his father, his father tells him that a man who believes everything is the same as a man who believes nothing. The film never deals with this quandary. However, as much as the film is disappointingly timid in its themes, and tries far too hard to please everyone, it is still an exciting, scary, beguiling, entrancing and often very funny adventure story. While watching it, most audiences are not going to care about the deeper issues. This is a classic example of what Alfred Hitchcock called an “icebox movie” which is a film that sends you out of the auditorium on a high that lasts until you open the fridge at home and suddenly think, “wait a minute”.
Despite everything, I can’t wait to watch it again.
THE 3D EDITION ★★★★★ Life of Pi is of course also available on 3D Blu-ray, and this disc sets a new reference level for stereoscopy in the home. The special effects work is just as astounding on this home entertainment release as it was in the cinema, and despite the well-publicised tribulations that befell the chief effects house Rhythm and Hues, its visual effects Oscar was richly deserved. Most live-action 3D releases suffer from at least some blurring, but Life of Pi is never less than crystal clear. There has been criticism of the best cinematography Oscar awarded to Claudio Miranda for his work on Lee's film, but this is a perfect marriage of elements, and each (direction, photography and visual effects) is state of the art.
The 3D version includes deleted scenes and a detailed breakdown of the ship sinking sequence (a mini Titanic). It's nice to see Fox putting the effort in here. While the deleted scenes are nothing ground breaking, the VFX progression is quite astonishing.
If you have a 3D TV, you have to get this. With the 3D DVD release schedule ahead being filled with children's animation and shoddy genre films, Life of Pi serves to justify the format's existence for a little while longer.
EXTRAS ★★★ The four-part behind-the-scenes featurette A Filmmaker's Epic Journey (1:03:29); the featurette A Remarkable Vision (19:35), which is a look at the film's visual effects; the featurette Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright (8:35), a look at how the filmmakers blended the real tigers (they used three) and the CGI tiger; a picture gallery; seven storyboards from the film.