“Get that zoo off me boat mate!” is not a line from the Life of Pi, but it is a line reflective of my jokey pre-viewing attitude toward this film. Scepticism was somewhat overbearing in the lead up to watching Ang Lee’s acclaimed visual extravaganza. Much had been said of the 3D and visual effects employed in the film, so naturally I was left very worried for any story that might have been left in a dark corner. These reservations were no doubt enhanced by the consensus that as a novel, Life of Pi has been touted as ‘unfilmable’. A story that flirts between realism and fantasy is never going to be easy to translate onto the silver screen. In Ang Lee, however, there is a director that fits the bill all too well.
Pi Patel is introduced to the audience as a seemingly ordinary and unremarkable middle aged man. Visiting him is a novelist suffering from writer’s block, which sets up the telling of Pi’s life story; and what a story. The early years of Pi’s life are directed with an endearing whimsy, whilst threading through the themes that are ever present throughout the rest of the film. Some of the comedic elements, such as Pi’s actual name (Piscine, from the French word for swimming pool), are reminiscent of Wes Anderson at his most twee. This is soon forgotten though, as love and religion are firmly established as the two compass points, with a curious young Pi jumping between beliefs faster than the speed of light. Pi’s first encounter of love soon arrives and is cut bitterly short by his family’s decision to move their lives to Canada. This in turn provides a wistful tone to Pi as a character, as it’s clear for the rest of the story that he’s longing for the life set up so perfectly for him back in India. In turn, it’s difficult for anyone to say they don’t care about Pi.
The start of the real story arrives as the ship carrying Pi’s family sinks amidst an absolute behemoth of a storm. This is where the visual elements of the film start to not so much weave their magic, they punch you in the face until you can’t help but sit in an open-mouthed state of shock and awe. It’s hard to recall another instance in which computer generated effects have this much physical weight behind them and it is absolutely stunning. Pi is thrown around like a rag doll and because of the preceding third of the film, the audience really, really cares about the engrossing and brutal scene unfolding in front of their eyes. A sense of relief accompanies the aftermath of the shipwreck and now, it seems, is where the real challenge stands in front of Ang Lee; creating an entertaining movie with one actor, a boat and a CGI tiger.
Somehow, it works and it works extremely well. Suraj Sharma as Pi creates such an incredible, effortless and dynamic relationship with the camera that it seems somehow impossible this is acting debut. Quite how he managed to be so captivating with just an animated tiger called Richard Parker is anyone’s guess. Ang Lee has created a film that is one of the finest visual achievements of the last decade (scuttle away, Avatar), whilst retaining all the heart, vigour and sheer entertainment value of any recent blockbuster. What makes Life of Pi work is the dedication of all involved to actually tell the story of said life, not gloss over it with flashy visual elements. This mindset of visuals complimenting story, rather than the other way round, is the way it should be. Poignancy, relevance and spectacle are here in abundance for those looking for it, willing to make that journey, on a boat, with a CGI tiger named Richard Parker, maybe. All in all, a beautiful, beautiful film.
A quick word on the 3D: I have to admit, the use of 3D in this film is one of the only examples in my memory that hasn’t bothered me and made me want to rip my eyes out and throw them at the film industry. That’s not to say I wouldn’t prefer seeing it in 2D, just that for once it seems the filmmakers have tried to use the technology in a way that benefits the substance of the film, rather than fill the pockets of the investors. Still, this is not me advocating the use of 3D. Get rid of it, get rid of it now.