Based on the previously thought unfilmable 2001 novel by Yan Martell, Ang Lee’s adaptation proves this very wrong and the result is one of the most visually impressive and immersive films of the year. (I saw it in 2012). But also, it is perhaps the only example of a big tentpole movie that puts themes of faith and spirituality as the centrepiece of the plot.
The film tells the tale of Piscine Patel, who takes to calling himself Pi, and his struggle for survival after the freighter carrying his family, and all the animals from their zoo, to America is lost at sea. Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with just a tiger, named Richard Parker, for company. The film is by turns a survival story, a friendship story and an exploration of faith. And each of the threads works beautifully together, weaving a story that enchants and excites. The survival aspect is portrayed as every bit as difficult as you could imagine; Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker is shown to be a symbiotic one; Pi realising that without the ever present threat of being killed by the tiger he would have surely died at sea, the tiger keeping him ever vigilant; and the relationship eventually turns into mutual respect (or does it?) and the exploration of faith is a pleasingly anti-cynical presentation of the power of belief. Pi is shown to be an adopter of all religions and as such the film isn’t laboured with a this-is-right-this-is-wrong mindset, and is presented in good humour; it never feels like the film is lecturing you. What it does do is give Pi a charming, not naiveté but rather a winning outlook on life that makes him easy to root for, and first time actor Suraj Sharma is asked to give every ounce of himself for the performance.
The film also has a very unique visual style that makes full use of the frame, and utilises the 3D and the vast canvas of colours to its fullest effect. There are scenes that are simply dazzling to look at, both beautiful vistas (the sky reflected in the perfectly still sea creating a mesmerising moving painting effect) as well as terrifying (Pi escaping on the lifeboat is one of the more gut wrenching scenes on show, and easily rivals any other blockbusters this year for the sheer carnage on screen, but not in an exploitative way). The extra dimension isn’t used for cheap jump moments (although there is one, and yes, it did make me jump) but rather gives Ang Lee the opportunity to add even more depth to the story, both visually and metaphorically. One scene in particular highlight the importance the 3D has in this film; as we dive into the water and continue to sink into a psychedelic light show that I honestly feel just wouldn’t have had the same impact in 2D. Which is the first time I’ve ever thought that in a live action film.
And then there are the effects. Never short of stunning with the most photorealistic animals you’ve seen since last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Richard Parker is a real tiger, even though he’s not. A tangible, physical presence despite only being a series of zeros and ones. A truly outstanding achievement.
Overall, I enjoyed the themes on display in Life of Pi. It’s not at all, like some reviews have stated, like Castaway. The plot may be similar but Pi is more concerned with asking the big questions of life, as well as showing the endurance of the human spirit.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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