Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, is a film so fascinating and so stunning to look at, you don’t want to blink for fear of missing out on a moment. It’s the only film since James Cameron’s Avatar to exploit 3D so richly. Nearly every frame resembles a gorgeous watercolor painting…from the open blue skies, to the expanse of the ocean, the wondrous marine life underwater, even the island on which our hero at one point lands. Ang Lee, the director of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon uses the technology shrewdly to suck you into this impossible story of a boy, the sea, and a tiger.
The boy in question, played by newcomer Suraj Sharma, is 16-year-old Piscine Molitor Patel, named after his uncle’s favorite swimming pool in Paris. Pi, as he nicknames himself, lives in Pondicherry with his parents who own a zoo. When the family decides to move to Canada, they pack up their belongings, exotic animals included, and board a ship. A massive storm causes the ship to sink. Only Pi and a tiger named Richard Parker survive, leaving them stuck on a lifeboat adrift at sea.
Narrated in flashback by the older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a visitor in his home, this is the story of how a boy protected himself from becoming a tiger’s dinner, about the incredible experiences he went through during this ordeal that lasted over 200 days, and about how young Pi thought of God while he was on that boat, surrounded by endless water.
Adapted from Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning novel, the film is above all else a visual marvel. Lee gives Life of Pi an epic, sweeping feel, but can’t seem to smoothly transpose the book’s overarching themes of spirituality and faith to the screen. We’re told Pi, who is raised a Hindu, also embraced Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, and his faith is tested as he struggles to stay afloat and alive under such trying circumstances. The film raises questions about life and death, about faith and what is real. But this whole spiritual business feels pat, lending little else but another ‘exotic’ layer to the story.
Nothing in the film is as riveting as the relationship and the precarious living arrangement between Pi and the ferocious Richard Parker. The tiger, in particular, is the film’s most stunning creation, realized entirely through computer-generated special effects. Lee employs CGI to deliver moments of sheer jaw-dropping beauty like a nighttime scene in which the ocean is lit up by colorful fish. Another stunning sequence is one in which Pi and the tiger encounter a shoal of flying fish.
Life of Pi is an immersive film that puts you at the heart of the story. Often dipping his camera below the surface of the water, Lee conveys the feeling of floating helplessly in the vastness of the ocean. The photography is beautiful, showcasing the mysteries and the dangers and the wonders of the seas.
Entrusted with an incredible, leading role in his very first film, Suraj Sharma anchors “Life of Pi” with a compelling. Despite the distracting accent, Irrfan Khan brings a soulful maturity to the part of the older Pi; and Adil Hussain and particularly the graceful Tabu are nicely cast as the younger Pi’s parents.
Yet, Life of Pi is not an easy film, although it does deliver many pleasures. The payoff in the end feels slight and not entirely convincing, but what you can never deny is that this film is unlike any other you’ve ever seen.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. It may not touch your heart, but it’s a feast for the eyes. Watch it for its sheer visual brilliance.