Title: LIFE OF PI
20th Century Fox
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriter: David Magee, from Yann Martel’s novel
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Andrea de Stefano, Adil Hussain, Shravanthi Sainath, Gerard Depardieu
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 11/15/12
Opens: November 21, 2012
Combining “Cast Away” with “Titanic,” Ang Lee, whose blockbuster contributions to the cinema have included such distinct fare as “Brokeback Mountain” (hidden love between two cowboys) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (two warriors pursue a stolen sword), is now aided by a horde of special effects people to create a marvelous, beautifully framed, even elegant “Life of Pi.” Technology has outdone its past benefits with incredible animatronic creations of animals from a hyena to a zebra, to a rat to an orangutan and especially to a Bengal tiger that the hero sets out to tame. While Yann Martel’s novel of the same name suggests that the entire adventure is allegorical—that the hyena is really a cook and that the tiger is actually the hero who kills the cook—the movie should be taken at face value. A tiger is a tiger is a tiger.
“Life of Pi” is filmed in a 3D which is artistically useful rather than simply a commercial method of sending spears into our noses and allowing box offices to charge outrageous prices. Hitting the theaters fresh from an opening-night world premiere at the New York Film Festival, Ang Lee’s movie, adapted from Yann Martel’s novel by David Magee, could scare kids younger than eight since, after all, the hyena and the tiger do engage in some kills, albeit not too graphically shown, and several times compete with the wind and the waves to provide an ending to the hero’s fragile life.
The film’s initial frame is shot in Pondicherry, India, honing in on Santosh Patel (Adil Hussain) and his wife (Tabu)—both educated people who take loving care of their son Pi while operating a zoo in that former French colony. Their young son Piscine (Gautam Belur at age five and Ayush Tandon at age eleven) is bright, curious, and testing religions to see which fit best. Unwilling to decide on any one faith, the young vegetarian commits himself to the God and gods of the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and later studies enough Kabbala to find room for Judaism. As a middle-aged adult (irrfan Khan), he tells the story of his adventures to a writer (Rafe Spall standing in for novelist Yann Martel), who is transfixed enough to base his book on the older Pi’s virtual monologue. The storytelling goes on so long that we in the audience are wondering whether we’re in the right movie, but sure enough, we watch nature gain revenge for reasons we know not of, by wrecking a Japanese cargo ship that is carrying the family and their animals to Montréal, where the beasts are scheduled to be sold. Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the lone human survivor, though he shares his small space with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, and ultimately a huge, menacing Bengal tiger that could end his life sooner than the tempestuous ocean.
As brilliant 3D photography captures the tumbling of the waves and the unfair fight that results in the hyena’s killing the zebra and the tiger’s clawing the hyena to death, Pi must spend his time resisting the current while fending off the murderous moves by the Richard Parker, as the tiger was named in a mix-up at birth. While most rational people would expect nature to have its way, leaving the ship with no survivors, Pi attempts both to ward off the tiger’s advances with an oar and to accustom the beast to himself by months of their mutual company.
Some of the surprises include the tiger’s ability to swim like a large dog after jumping into the water and later heaving himself back to the boat; Pi’s attempt to mark territory by peeing in his area, an act met by the tiger’s unleashing a flood of urine to cover the entire boat; and a few looks at the brilliance of nature by casting the ocean into a kaleidoscopic copy of the universe. It helps greatly that Suraj Sharma as Pi turns in a phenomenal freshman performance, having been chosen after interviews with 3,000 candidates for this lead role. During the filming of the picture, Sharma loses a considerable amount of weight and grows and awesome body of hair on his head. He even increases the tan on his body.
“Life of Pi” will enthrall people of all ages, scaring the youngest while riveting the adults. Though it’s difficult to keep those infernal 3D glasses on for the duration of the film, “Life of Pi” does not overextend its welcome at just over two hours.
Rated PG. 125 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-