Questions about how filmable Yann Martel’s smash hit novel is swirled everywhere when Fox announced they were adapting it. As soon as Ang Lee was confirmed as director, any residual fears about the movie should have been dispelled, and the experience of seeing it makes you realise just how filmable the story always was with the right director.
Filming in a large tank in an abandoned Taiwan airport, Lee and his crew have bought the ocean to life in ways seldom seen on screen. The portrayal of the moods, colours and motion of the sea range from armrest-clenchingly realistic (as they are during the storm and ship-sinking sequence) to whimsy and fantasy (which you’ve seen a hint of in the trailer’s breaching whale).
If you don’t know the story, you’ll be surprised just how gripping it is with only one human character for such a long stretch. When Indian teenager Pi (Suraj Sharma) is traveling from Pondicherry towards his new life in Canada with his family, he’s lost at sea in the most harrowing shipwreck scenes since ”Poseidon” or ”Titanic”.
But the human passengers weren’t alone on the ship, the animal cargo from his father’s zoo stowed belowdecks to be sold when the family arrives. When he comes up on deck to watch the storm closing in late one night, it soon becomes apparent the ship is in trouble. Desperate crew members throw Pi in a lifeboat, joined by a desperate zebra who promptly breaks its leg as it leaps into the boat with him.
After a night tossing and turning in the storm, Pi and the zebra are joined by more survivors in a hyena and an orangutan, and soon after, they all discover to their horror that Richard Parker – the zoo’s prize tiger – has been hiding underneath a tarp the entire time. The law of the jungle ensues and soon Pi is left alone with the tiger, fashioning a makeshift raft tied to the boat to put himself out of harm’s way.
As he exhorts God to deliver him from his torment or tell him why he suffers, Pi finds a resourcefulness he never knew to stay alive, keep Richard Parker from eating him and even take care of the tiger if he can, using only the meagre provisions and his wits.
Despite a strong air of fantasy, the sense of threat and desperation that surrounds the relationship between the boy and the tiger is realistic, terrifying and beautiful all at once – if a boy and a tiger have ever shared a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, you can imagine it being just like this.
But such realism that doesn’t stop director Lee leaping decisively outside the box when it comes to the visuals. Scenes of bioluminescent sea life drifting beneath the boat bring to mind the forests of Pandora in Avatar, and they’re among the many images of striking visual beauty. Even when Pi is tossed beneath the churning waves and sees the giant passenger ship sinking through the murky water, lights blinking off, Lee manages to make it a thing of grace.
But ”Life of Pi”’s biggest strength is some of the best CGI animals you’ve ever seen. Images of Richard Parker stalking around the benches of the boat or leaping onto the bow to strike at Pi are heart stopping because the tiger seems to have the real-world physics of weight and power. The production used several real tigers, but Sharma never shared the set with them and the point between the real and the digital is completely seamless, making the simians of ”Rise of the Planet of the Apes” shoddy by comparison.
But it’s because the film is so gripping that it loses its way in the final ten minutes. Having the adult Pi tell the story to a writer (Rafe Spall, presumably the stand-in for Martel) is a fine enough device, but the young Pi telling the Japanese insurance investigators what happened in hospital after his rescue is an anticlimax. It could have ended with the pivotal Richard Parker moment that affects Pi the rest of his life and left you wanting much more.
However there’s no faulting Lee’s vision and scope and the technical artistry that bought it to life.