The New York Times best selling novel, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The novel is also widely regarded as material that could not be put to film. Whether it be the “un-filmable” shipwreck or the “un-filmable” tiger, it was simply a question of “how could anyone pull it off?” However, like every popular book on the market, it had to be transferred to a blockbuster film and, unlike most of the popular book to movie adaptations, this is one is really, really good.
The plot of Life of Pi is actually quite simple. Pi and his family are the owners of a zoo in India and when business opportunities present themselves for his father, Pi and his family sets sail for Canada, taking all of the animals with them. A kind of Noah’s ark when you think about it… excluding the next fact. The ship sinks, drowning mostly every living thing on board. All that survives is Pi, along with four animals, one of which is a Bengal tiger. When it all winds down, Pi is left alone on the boat with a tiger that he must either stray from in fear, or take control of and train, in an epic tale of tragedy, loss, bonding, and friendship.
Pi, being the main character of the movie, is portrayed by four different actors. Irrfan Khan, known for his role in the Academy Award winning film Slumdog Millionaire, portrays Pi in the present day, as an older man who is telling his story story to a writer. His performance is good, along with Rafe Spall’s as the writer. Ayush Tondon plays the part of Pi as a young boy, maybe 9 or 10 years old and he does a good job, right alongside Gautam Tondon as Pi as a 6 year old boy. Newcomer Suraj Sharma plays the part of Pi throughout the major act of the film and does a superb job. He gives a seriously dramatic performance, forcing the audience to believe his pain, joy, and every other emotion he is feeling, all while interacting perfectly with a CGI Bengal tiger.
I do have a few problems with the film, one of which is the storyline in which Pi is giving his accounts to a writer. I found it, for one, a little unrealistically depicted, and also a little discouraging, mainly because it assures us in the beginning that Pi is going to survive, taking a lot of could-have-been suspense away. Also, the opening of the film does drag a bit, taking a good forty minutes to set up its characters. Sure, once the shipwreck happens and Pi is stranded, I felt like I knew Pi better as a character thanks to the buildup, but I felt they could’ve knocked off a few minutes.
Now that the good aspects and the flaws are both mentioned, let’s discuss the great aspects. This movie is directed by Academy Award winning director Ang Lee. Lee, winning the trophy for his directorial effort in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, was an unrealized pick for a film of this magnitude. He has never made a film in which the visuals are as important as they are here, let alone a 3D movie. Now, Lee, like James Cameron, will be known for that aspect because this is the best use of 3D I have seen since Avatar. I feel like since the poster for this film is glamorizing the quote from TIME Magazine saying the same thing, it will become a bit of a cliché to say that, but it’s simply true. Not that it is as stunning as the James Cameron masterpiece was, but it certainly comes close. There is a scene in the middle of this film which was, unfortunately, released before Prometheus, that is jaw dropping. They added black bars to the top and bottom of the screen and a herd of flying fish come into focus, attacking Pi’s boat, and the fish overlap the black bars, creating the illusion that the fish are emerging from the screen. The ship wreck scene is spectacular, and there are many more eye popping 3D effects I won’t spoil. Just know that if you see Life of Pi, you must see it in 3D. Now for the visuals, which are indisputably gorgeous. The tiger, while obviously CGI, is 100% convincing, probably the most wondrously animated object in a movie all year. As for the camera angles and shots, Ang Lee gets many of them in the second and third acts of this film that literally made me say to myself, “wow.” There is a scene in which Pi is on his boat in the middle of the night and everything is black, excluding the jellyfish under the water, creating a strikingly transparent shade of blue that fills the entire screen with appealing deliciousness. The opening credit sequence in the film is nothing short of beautiful. This is without a doubt the best looking movie of the entire year.
In all, I can say that Life of Pi has a rocky opening, which lasts for about 1/3 of the film’s running time, but once the climatic shipwreck occurs, all the wait pays off. It rapidly becomes a fantastic survival story, much like Cast Away without the island. The emotion runs high, the visuals and gorgeously delicious, and the 3D is majestically staggering.
Run Time: 127 mins
Rated: PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tondon, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Shravanthi Sainath, and Gautam Belur
Written by: David Magee
Directed by: Ang Lee