After its premier at the New York Film Festival, Life of Pi enjoyed an incredible amount of early buzz. The novel, written by Yann Martel, is an international best seller. But what is it that makes Life of Pi such a compelling narrative?
At first glance, it seems easy to decipher Life of Pi‘s simple storyline; a young man, Pi, stranded out at sea, must survive with an adult Bengal tiger. Life of Pi is that, but also so much more. It’s a story about faith and spirituality, as well as overcoming nature’s incredible force to survive. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) infuses this uniquely crafted adventure with visuals that exceed expectations.
For what eventually becomes a visually stunning film, Life of Pi certainly has humble beginnings. A writer (Rafe Spall) meets up with Older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to inquire about a story that will not only awe him, but also make him believe in God. Older Pi explains his upbringings, which include studying a multitude of different religions, and trying to befriend a tiger aptly named “Richard Parker.” The story seems less than intriguing until Older Pi details the voyage to Canada that begins his grand adventure.
After many years of Pi’s family struggling to take care of a zoo, they decide they must leave India to start their lives anew. In order to do so, they plan to sell the animals from the zoo, and before long Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the other members of his family, including the hoofed, feathered, and hairy ones, are on a freighter. One night, a catastrophic storm strikes and Pi is forced into a life boat for survival, thus beginning his ultimate fight for life.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma is completely in control of Life of Pi. Given that he must command most of the screen time against a tiger, his is the only voice the audience hears against the high seas. He also does an excellent job of reacting and relating to his CGI co-star, so much so that it looks as though Sharma has been doing this forever.
Life of Pi was always considered an un-filmable novel. Not only does it feature countless animals, but it fully relies on one of those animals becoming the heart of the story. The tiger, “Richard Parker,” is unquestionably the star of Life of Pi. Made from a mix of CGI and four different Bengal tigers, the effects team made their tiger as photo-real as possible. The mannerisms and reactions are all precise and this CGI character is certainly one that’s easy to get attached to.
From the first image that appears on the screen, it becomes clear that Lee was made for the world of 3D. There is such an incredible palette on display; when Pi is out at sea there’s an urge to freeze frame the image and delve into its beauty. There aren’t many film experiences where 3D truly proves an enhancement to the film (Avatar and Hugo might be two), but Life of Pi should be included in that conversation. From the sinking of the massive freighter, to the incredibly catastrophic feeling on the boat between man and tiger, Lee seems to have mastered the art of 3D film making in one fell swoop.
The one element of Life of Pi that was, perhaps, lost in the translation from book to film was the call out to spirituality and faith. The movie opts to omit a voice over to explore the inner workings of Pi, so the connection to spirituality is lost. When so much of the narrative spends time away from those elements, and as we cannot hear what the character is thinking at any given moment, the scenes of literal spirituality can feel shoehorned-in. Additionally, the finale may leave some viewers a little less than satisfied.
One could see how this film would be an incredibly tough sell to those unfamiliar with the source material. It’s certainly not a children’s film, although it is rated PG and features countless animals. It’s not a film for the action crowd or those with short attention spans, due to long sequences with nothing but a boat, Pi, and his tiger. The pacing of the film is comparable to Cast Away and fidgety audiences may not appreciate the silence. Additionally, it’s a 3D film and therefore demands a premium price. Even with all this against it, hopefully, Life of Pi finds the audience it deserves.
Life of Pi is a majestic and grand film that should be applauded. It has a spectacular performance from a newcomer, the most compelling CGI animal ever created, and complete discipline over the 3D medium. Even with the preaching and pacing issues, Life of Pi is a film worth experiencing on the biggest screen possible, as soon as possible.