For many years, Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, was considered unfilmable, but Taiwanese director Ang Lee has a habit of subverting expectations. He brought us a Hulk that was more “Hulk angst!” than “Hulk smash!”, and well, I don’t think the terms “cowboys” and “bareback riding” will ever be used in close proximity again with the same meaning it used to have.
And so too with Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi – not only does he prove those “unfilmable” claims wrong, he does it beautifully. But there is quite the difference between a movie that looks beautiful and a movie that is beautiful, and Life of Pi is a whole lot of the one, but just a bit of the other.
Life of Pi tells the tale of Piscene Molitor Patel (played affably by newcomer Shuraj Sharma), a young Indian boy growing up in the French quarter of India in the 1970’s. His life is touched by a bit of the fantastical even before he’s born when he is named after a French swimming pool. Yes, it’s that kind of a story. Since his name brings him nothing but grief (it’s pronounced ‘piss-een’, much to his classmates’ puntastic delight) he changes it to Pi. And very much like the irrational number his name is derived from, Pi starts upping the irrational belief ante to the annoyance of his atheist father and devout Hindu mother.
And thus starts a bookending narrative to this tale that deigns to ask some pretty deep questions all about God, religion and all things spiritual. Deep questions that then get sidetracked by stuff like a giant, neon green superwhale and islands that eat people. Like I said, it’s that kind of a story.
That sidetracking tale – narrated by a much older Pi (played with a wonderful warmth by Irffan Khan) living in Canada, to a young writer (Rafe Spall) in search of some inspiration – truly begins when Pi’s family decides to move their exotic zoo from India to Canada in search of a better life. When the Japanese freighter they are on – laden with a menagerie of animals – gets capsized by a storm of godly ferocity, Pi’s entire family with all other hands on board are lost. Pi miraculously survives, clinging to a lifeboat, but he while he is the only human left alive, he is not alone. Joining him on the lifeboat are a handful of animals, including, and most importantly, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (who got his name due to a clerical error, in case you were wondering), all stunningly brought to life through a seamless merging of real animals and some digital wizardry.
Now to be honest, me labeling this central portion of the story as “sidetracking” is probably quite unfair. What it is is an adventure story, the likes of which you have probably never seen. As Pi endures the emotional hardships of coming to terms with the loss of his entire world and the physical hardships of surviving this calamity, all the while simultaneously trying his best to not be devoured by the 220kg bundle of razor sharp tooth and claw crouched under his boat’s tarp, he experiences a series of increasingly fantastical events/encounters with varying aspects and denizens of the vast ocean he finds himself adrift on.
And it’s these that are easily the highlight of the film. What Ang Lee has done for all these scenes is use the best CGI to have ever pleasured my eyesockets to create a flowing tapestry of magical, visual masterpieces that will leave you in blubbering awe. Despite the fact that the aforementioned neon green superwhale only shows up to pull sort of a dick move (there’s a sperm whale joke in there that I will ignore for now), the image of it rising up through a phosphorescent green sea in the dead of night, to launch itself, pirouetting, into the star dotted sky, is one that’s hard to beat.
So too is Lee’s amazing handling of the ocean itself, often using it as a mirror to be held up to not only the metaphysical state of Pi’s emotional fragility but also the very physical beauty of a pastel, cloud streaked sunset. And as an uneasy truce and soon hesitant friendship is formed between tiger and boy as they both encounter these wonders, Pi experiences a profound realization about the spirituality of life and all it’s myriad aspects.
Well at least, that’s what the film clearly wants you to think, but unfortunately it falls a bit short of the mark here, especially when the film’s final “surprise twist” third act rolls around.
Despite the fact that the clues are clearly there throughout the tale, and that I know exactly what message the story is trying to bring across, when the film’s so called spiritual bombshell gets dropped, I just couldn’t help but feel like it was a bit unsure of it’s payload. It’s like Lee was unsure of whether what we had witnessed was just supposed to be a rip-roaring fantasy adventure or some sort of parable about life, the universe and everything else.
In the end, all I can say is that while it’s an utterly amazing and at times thrilling film to watch, whose virtually flawless technical merits should certainly win Lee a few new trinkets for the mantlepiece, it’s not quite the spiritual game-changer it aspires to be.
But man, those were some pretty fishies.