There is a lot that could go wrong with a big screen adaptation of Life of Pi the 2001 bestselling novel by Yaan Martel. Which may explain why the story of a young boy stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — juggling deep themes of religion family nature and human existence — has been developed and let go by many big names in Hollywood. For nearly a decade filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) have grappled with the project but it wasn't until Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) that the film was fully realized.
Lee's Life of Pi is an inspiring film sporting imaginative visuals and pushing the art of 3D in new directions. Even more impressive is what's underneath it all: a character-driven narrative that depicts the book's grand ideas with unexpected tenderness.
Life of Pi dreams big. Thanks to Lee's expert direction and a solid script from David Magee (Finding Neverland) the survivor tale avoids the pitfalls of such an ambitious effort never straying into hokey melodrama. The film opens with a writer (Rafe Spall) visiting an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) at his home in Canada after being told that the Indian immigrant had an amazing life story in need of capturing. "Amazing" may not be enough of a superlative. Young Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) begins his life as a regular kid in Pondicherry India growing up on his family's bustling zoo while attempting to fit in with the world around him. His major struggle is with religion — while his father resents faith and his mother is dedicated to Hinduism Pi wants a little of it all. He's Hindu he's Catholic he's Muslim he's a wanderer between all ways of thinking. When he attempts to feed the zoo's tiger only to be caught by his father and disciplined for considering the beast to be anything remotely soulful. It's clear that his upbringing in the lush environment has seeped deep into Pi's way of life.
The main character's passion for the world around him gives Lee the opportunity to direct Life of Pi with a painter's eye. Nearly every shot is exquisitely composed — from bold colors to camera movement to the layers of 3D. This holds true even when Pi's story takes a turn for the worse. Having run into financial troubles the Patel family packs up the animals and heads to Winnipeg on a French freighter. While crossing the Mariana Trench the ship encounters a catastrophic storm that floods it into oblivion (a moment of disaster that rivals the artistic destruction of Titanic). Pi and a few of the animal passengers escape on a lifeboat the glow of his past life slowly fading away into the depths of the Ocean. The set piece is gorgeous but Lee never forgets the impact the incident has on Pi's life. It's indicative of the entire film.
The brunt of the story focuses on the man vs. nature we've seen in films like 127 Hours and Cast Away but in an even more terrifying landscape and played out with an expressionistic touch. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with the Bengal tiger "Richard Parker " lowering the already minuscule chance of his survival to something unimaginable. He copes building a second raft out of wood planks and life preservers but his survival is a ticking clock. All he can do is sit fish write and pray.
Lee approaches Pi's journey of floating in the middle of the Pacific with a jungle cat like a fever dream. Like the swirling universe he imagines as the residence of his various gods the deserted ocean is a luminescent wonder filled with giant whales glowing jellies flying fish and deep caverns that unlock Pi's wild imagination.
All the while Pi tends to his tiger; their brotherly relationship is the core of Life of Pi. Sharma has heavy material to tackle for his big screen debut but even with its weak moments stands as a tremendous breakout. Over time Pi loses himself to the ocean reaching for understanding and investing more and more in his feline companion. It's a physically demanding performance too — Lee always pelting something new at his young actor and Sharma shining through even the biggest wave. The tiger is another marvel a CG creation that actually performs against Sharma. If Caeser in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a milestone Richard Parker is the next step. On top of the central duo Magee's framing device of Older Pi and the writer works miraculously well thanks to the natural skills of Khan and Spall. Exposition be damned — these two can have a casual conversation that feels as dynamic as the larger-than-life tale they're discussing.
Life of Pi arrives in theaters on November 21 and as all the makings of the perfect holiday film. On a visceral level it's simply a beautiful movie (any live-action film that evokes memories of Hokusai's "The Great Wave" is doing something right). But Lee transcends flashy blockbuster contemporaries by finding a source material where the breathtaking compliments the character's arc. Life of Pi isn't an overtly religious film even though Pi identifies with religions of all kinds. It's about the power of self the religion of humanism. There are few feats of mortal strength as impressive as survival. That's what makes Life of Pi one of the most powerful films of the year.
At the turn of the 20th century we meet a tiger family living peacefully in the jungle ruins of an ancient Southeast Asian temple. The two male cubs--Kumal and Sangha (their given "human" names as we come to find out)--are tight as two brothers can be with Kumal being the more brave and adventurous of the two while Sangha remains the shyer more sensitive one. Their happy existence comes to a screeching halt however when a British hunter Aidan McRory (Guy Pierce) invades their world in search of sacred temple artifacts and inadvertently separates the two tiger cubs. Kumal is eventually sold off to a circus where captivity robs him of his spirit. Sangha on the other hand finds brief happiness as the beloved pet of a governor's lonely young son Raoul (Freddie Highmore) until an accident forces the family to give him away to a spoiled prince whose animal trainers turn Sangha into a fierce fighter for sport. A year later the full-grown brothers are finally reunited in a ring where they are forced to do battle for the enjoyment of bloodthirsty patrons--but the tigers end up recognizing each other instead and renewing their long-lost kinship. Together Kumal and Sangha escape their confines and head out to rediscover their roots in the jungle--that is if the big bad white men will let them.
Two Brothers focuses all its attention on the tigers leaving the human actors to serve only in perfunctory roles but Pierce stands out the most as the kindly McRory. The actor infuses the skilled hunter with a realistic outlook; he kills what he considers a dangerous man-eater. Yet by bonding with Kumal McRory eventually becomes the tiger's friend rather than its foe--and it's very gratifying to see him gain respect and admiration for the animals thus laying down his arms. Young Highmore (who will play Charlie Bucket in the upcoming Tim Burton remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) also adds a nice touch as Raoul whose innocence and pure love for Sangha teaches the adults around him a thing or two about caring for wildlife. But of course in a film of this nature mankind will ultimately be the bad guy; there's no way around it. And Two Brothers is chock-full of them--ignorant greedy and mean-spirited as they are.
"This movie is a combination of three of my greatest passions: the animal world a love of monasteries and temples and my fascination with the European colonial period. It was a world that irritated and fascinated but its buffoonery and quirky characters also amused me " explains Two Brothers filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud. As the critically acclaimed director of the 1989 The Bear Annaud knows what he is talking about having done the almost impossible again with Two Brothers--a compelling heartwarming film in which beautiful wild potentially dangerous and very real tigers are the main stars. How does he do it you may ask? Apparently he surrounds himself with the best animal trainers in the world including head trainer Thierry Le Portier. Annaud and Le Portier use about 30 different tigers in all each with their own unique personalities and specialties (i.e. some are better for the maternal scenes; others for the stunts). As well Annaud employs High Definition digital rather than just 35mm cameras (an upgrade since The Bear) which allows longer uninterrupted takes with the tigers. The end effect is mesmerizing as it puts you right there with the gorgeous animals. Some animatronic tigers are used but only in cases where the animals may have been in danger especially in one scene where the brother tigers escape a jungle fire. Of course there really isn't a story per se only vignettes in which you sort of gear yourself up for something bad to happen; that somehow the evils of mankind will prevail--and while Two Brothers still chokes you up it's more out of relief and happiness when everything turns out right.