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, 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.
The opening film of the 50th New York Film Festival, 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 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 128 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.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox(2)]