With its poetic realism and sickly, spiritual subtext, Yann Martel’s international bestselling novel Life of Pi was once declared unfilmable – until now. Directed by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Ang Lee, this beautiful adventure movie is an absolute must-see, even if the plot stinks.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma stars as Piscine Molitor Patel, aka Pi, a well-educated, wistful teenager growing up on the grounds of his family’s zoo in Pondicherry, India. As a curious son of liberal parentage, Pi is fascinated by the religions of the world, studying them in detail, but undecided which is the correct path for him.
After finding the answer and his soul mate, his father declares that the family are broke and must relocate to Canada. Boarding a cargo ship with his family and the anaesthetised exotic animals resting in the hull underneath, their journey across the Pacific is disrupted by the perfect storm, which sends the vessel plunging to the seabed. The only human survivor, orphaned Pi is left stranded aboard a lifeboat with a hysterical hyena, wounded zebra, benevolent orangutan and a Bengalese tiger called Richard Parker.
You don’t have to be an ethologist to see that Pi’s predicament would cause an infinite number of problems. Once the animals clash, our hero is left as the carnivorous Richard Parker’s final prey. But through his resourcefulness and spirituality, Pi manages to survive the fatal claws of his feline shipmate, and over a period of 227 days, the pair end up forming a remarkable relationship, built on companionship, fear and the mutual hope that they will one day be rescued.
Words cannot describe how stunning this movie is to look at. With the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a committed special effects team, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Brokeback Mountain and the ill-fated comic-book hero movie Hulk has directed the first ever 3D art film. It’s a bottomless box of visual delights: colours have never been so vivid, landscapes so luscious or 3D so fantastic. Instead of distancing us from the action onscreen, causing light-loss and nausea, the once-dreaded stereoscopic glasses deepen our engagement with Pi and Parker’s ordeal. In an extraordinary quest, they encounter millions of flying fish skittering past them, phosphorescent jellyfish glowing underneath, a breaching whale gliding across the starry skyline and an island inhabited by 60,000 meerkats.
In his debut role, Sharma is fantastic as Pi, able to balance religious fervour, comical flourish and irrepressible charm, even if his supporting catty cast member was almost entirely a digital creation, blended into the live action seamlessly. It’s incredibly refreshing to see the ironically named Richard Parker never anthropomorphised. He doesn’t talk, nor even exist in the real world, yet his presence in Pi’s life is what saves him, and ultimately the film, from excessive ‘is there a god?’ ruminations.
Adapted by screenplay writer David Magee (Finding Neverland), the cinematic spectacle does its best to cloak what is ostensibly a very corny plot, but elements of the baggy original novel still creep in. In typical Forrest Gump style, most of the story unravels through the recollections, of a present-day Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) in Montreal, who narrates the tale to a curious Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). It’s a narrative compromise lifted directly from Martel’s novel that tells instead of shows – a thorny branch that jolts the audience back into the mundane world we are all used to, and away from the wonderful realm where we’d rather be.
Whilst my atheism was left unscathed, the rapturous aestheticism rekindled my passion for big blockbuster cinema. Life of Pi is a much-needed bit of heart-warming magic during this frosty festive season.
Life of Pi (11)
Dir: Ang Lee; US adventure/drama, 2012, 130 mins; Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, Tabu
Premieres December 25