Film Review: Life of Pi

A superb, visually enthralling technical achievement, if somewhat parched dramatically.

From Yann Martel’s celebrated 2001 novel Life of Pi, director Ang Lee has fashioned a work full of images which must rank among the most beautiful ever committed to film, implanting themselves on your memory for all time. Lee uses 3D in inventive ways that seem integral, rather than imposed, and sequences like a 1950s French swimming pool, shot from below, so that swimmers look like they’re floating weightlessly with the sky above them, take your breath away.

The film tells the story of Pi (Suraj Sharma), a sprightly, singular 12-year-old boy in the lovely former French colony of Pondicherry, India, who is so deeply spiritual that he immerses himself in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism simultaneously, to the shock and awe of his family. His father (Adil Hussain), a former champion swimmer, is a zookeeper, which only brings another deluge of magnificent visuals of animals wending their way through lushly paradisiacal settings. Pi revels in this environment, but change occurs when it becomes financially necessary to move the entire family and menagerie to Canada by ship. A thrillingly filmed storm at sea precipitates a shipwreck, and the only survivors in a lifeboat are Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, a rat and the ultimate king of the beasts here, a ferocious Bengal tiger.

Food chain mayhem occurs and then the film essentially becomes a struggle for survival between Pi and that man-eating beast for the 227 days they are adrift, which will have you scratching your head at how Lee and his team managed to convey such amazingly convincing and terrifyingly close contact between our hero and the tiger, using stand-in animals and CGI. Unfortunately, as brilliantly as these scenes are accomplished, there is no denying the fact that the film rather settles into a kind of monotony, given the now very basic situation and dearth of any other incident or characters. The book was able to convey more of Pi’s mental and spiritual challenges and triumphs; the film can only show you the physical effects, and it all becomes a mere case of “The Lad or the Tiger?” requiring a gigantic suspension of disbelief.

The film reveals both Lee’s strengths and weaknesses, the former evincing itself in the early, quite delightful scenes of the smart, warm and funny family and their highly pictorial lifestyle. The latter, unfortunately, comes into play with the film’s excessive length and a certain ponderousness, as with that oh-so-serious but hollow framing device of having the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) relate the story to a wide-eyed Englishman (Rafe Spall, in the most thankless movie role of the year). Lee also doesn’t do much to lessen the more twee elements of the book, like those elaborate explanations of Pi’s name, not to mention that of the tiger, who is known as Richard Parker.

Sharma is charming and physically well up to his part’s demands, but lacks the depth necessary to truly convey Pi’s inner development. (It’s like casting Sabu in a role demanding something more than rambunctious likeability.) Gérard Depardieu pops up as a cranky ship’s cook, a welcome, if too short, bit of human cantankerousness amidst all the gentle enlightenment.

Still, there’s no gainsaying Lee’s incredible technical achievement here and his utter mastery of the plastic qualities of cinema, which results in so much sheer gorgeousness. In its use of 3D and every elaborate production value imaginable, I much preferred this to Martin Scorsese’s heavy-handed, self-consciously aesthetic Hugo, a museum piece which lacked the beautifully organic coalition of elements that accounts for so much of Life of Pi’s real magic.