A cinematic Moby Dick of sorts, Ang Lee’s celebrated adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel is indeed an incredible high seas adventure film of one man's battles against the power of the ocean and a beast. The technical achievement of rendering the isolation and conflict between an Indian boy and a hostile Bengal tiger aboard a lifeboat on the Indian Ocean is out of this world and worth the price of admission. Bringing this boat down, though not sinking it, is the sloppy and awkward bookend scenes in the present, a storytelling challenge which unfortunately Ang Lee and all the money given to this film just couldn't solve.
Life of Pi (2012) dir. Ang Lee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu, Ayush Tandon
By Alan Bacchus
Comparisons to the magic realism of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children (now also a high-profile cinematic adaptation) are strong. Lee’s hero Pi Patel is like Rushdie’s hero growing up in the wake of India’s independence and consequential upheaval. Pi and his family decide to leave the country, sell off the animals in the zoo they own and live abroad. But when a storm sinks their ship, Pi finds himself floating on a lifeboat alone on the high seas with a stray Bengal tiger as his companion.
Pi’s resourcefulness with the possessions on the lifeboat allows him to cohabitate with the tiger and sail the ocean for almost a year in search of land or rescue. Lee expertly shows the procedural-like details of how Pi evades the tiger. Since there’s nothing outside of the water around the boat Pi’s ingenuity and evasive techniques are wonderfully ingenious, a strong metaphor for his character's innate ability to survive.
Lee embraces all of the elaborate fantasy and magic realist expressions in the novel. In particular, an unusual encounter with an island inhabited by thousands of lemurs, which leads to the strong spiritual parable the film boldly wears on its sleeve.
The creation of the tiger, which I presume is mostly computer graphics, is truly astonishing. It's the best rendering of a real animal in CG I’ve ever seen. While the detail of its fur is impressive, the instinctual movements of the tiger as a wild untamed animal are completely invisible to the process. At no point do we ever believe this animal isn’t a living, breathing thing. Lee never resorts to humanizing the mammal either. The tiger, named Richard Parker by Pi, acts ‘in character’ at all times. He never becomes a bonded human companion and certainly not a talking animal either.
What Ang Lee is never quite able to crack are the bookend scenes, which has the elder Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounting his story to a journalist. Their stroll through the streets of Montreal is downright awkward and horribly acted by Rafe Spall (son of Timothy). Heaps of dialogue and on-the-nose speeches and explanations bog down the finale, which attempts to make the twists of the book cinematic. It never quite works. It's a murky and obtuse ending that proves to be less thought-provoking than intended and ultimately unsatisfying.
While we’re not left with the feeling of a resounding masterpiece, the film’s values trump its deficiencies, making it a worthy immersive journey.