New York Film Festival Review
Title: Life of Pi
Directed By: Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Vibish Sivakumar, Adil Hussain
Piscine lives with his brother and parents in Pondicherry, India. When he isn’t spending time with the animals at his family-owned zoo, an inquisitive Pi is off exploring different faiths of which he adopts three. When Pi makes an attempt at befriending the zoo’s tiger, Richard Parker, his father steps in to teach him a rather harsh lesson, one that rattles his beliefs and curiosity.
At 17, Pi’s parents decide it’s time to seek a better life so board a Japanese cargo ship with their animals and set sail for Canada. Along the way, the boat encounters a vicious storm, sinking the ship and leaving just one human survivor, Pi. But Pi is not alone. He shares his lifeboat with Richard Parker.
Talk about bringing Yann Martel’s book to life. The instant the opening credits kick in, you know you’re in for one of the most vivid experiences the movies can offer. Ang Lee’s use of 3D throughout the film isn’t distracting in the least, but during this opening montage, the animals really do pop off the screen and the fact that the images are so colorful and crisp makes the effect particularly impressive and striking.
However, from that point on, it’s all about the story. Pi’s a charmer right from the start. His unique way of beating the bullies sets up his boundless need to explore humanity, faith and more, and it’s so inspiring that when his father nearly destroys that curiosity, it pains the audience just as much as it does Pi. Even without that sense of wonder, Pi still maintains a loveable personality, letting the story continue to tug on your heartstrings as Pi loses his family and is marooned on a tiny lifeboat with a vicious tiger. Even then, you’ve only scratched the surface of “Life of Pi.” The humor is charming and the action sequences are riveting, but it’s Lee’s ability to keep Pi’s desperation for something to believe in so strong throughout that makes this more than a story, rather something that’s truly inspiring.
The only element that does manage to detract from Pi’s downright incredible experience is the way that Lee chooses to frame it. Having never read the book, I can’t judge Martel’s choice to use a writer looking for inspiration (Rafe Spall) and consulting with an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) to present the tale, but in the film, the contemporary moments are a bit of a drag. It’s really just Spall and Khan having one-on-one chats, eating and taking leisurely walks, and while both actors offer up solid performances, a mere conversation just can’t compare to Pi’s story. Every time the film jumps from young Pi to older Pi, you’re itching for it to get back to the good stuff again.
Again, Khan makes for a fine older Pi, but this is Suraj Sharma’s movie. What a find! Sharma is one of those actors that doesn’t need a single word of dialogue; a mere glare is enough to sell how Pi feels, giving the audience constant access to the character and access to Richard Parker as well. Richard Parker is the result of CG technology, but you would never suspect it. Not only does he look like a living, breathing tiger, but Lee also doesn’t soften him in the least. Richard Parker is ferocious and, just as Pi’s father suggests, he will hurt Pi if he gets too close. Toss in the fact that as Pi’s only companion out at sea, he truly needs Richard Parker to survive, and you get this beautiful dichotomy of Richard Parker evoking a sense of danger, but comfort as well.
As for the world around them, if you’re looking for it (and thanks to the overwhelmingly engaging story you shouldn’t be), there are moments that hint that Sharma’s in a tank and not really out at sea, but otherwise, the environments are all on point. Most seascapes aim for realism, but with particularly rich colors simply making “Life of Pi” a gorgeous watch. However, there are also a few moments when Lee straddled the line of realism and surrealism, and that’s something that not only keeps up in line with Pi’s physical arc, but his mental and emotional one, too.
“Life of Pi” is a film with lofty goals, but thanks to Lee’s firm grasp on everything from story to visuals to tone and more, he grounds everything just enough for you to deem it credible, but also question everything you just experienced, and when you find yourself fighting for the parts you want to believe in, you’ll know Pi’s done right.