“Life of Pi” Movie Review

     Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a brilliant exercise in creative filmmaking and quite worthy of all the praise the film has received thus far.  Just as he did with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Lee successfully creates what feels like a parallel world.  One which we know can’t be real and really doesn’t feel real, yet we as an audience buy into it.  It’s quite a hypnotic experience if you will.  Based on the novel by Yann Martel, the consensus was the material was not a viable source for a film.  It was said there wasn’t enough of a screen story when the primary characters are an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger who are stranded at sea in a life boat.  As it turns out, this story was quite a sprawling canvas for Lee and his creative team.  All of the elements for a great film are here and I would expect “Life of Pi” to be a serious awards contender come the Oscar ceremony.

     We first meet Pi (Irrfan Knan) as a grown adult.  He is meeting with a writer who intends on turning his experiences into a book.  Lee structures the film as a series of flashbacks, which are at times narrated by the present day Pi.  We learn Pi was part of a family who owned a zoo in India and this meant many unique experiences with the animals they cared for.  Lee spends the first half hour of the film switching between present day and various points of Pi’s early child hood.  This is important since many of the lessons learned will become useful in the future and tie directly into the plot of the story.  When Pi is a teenager (now played by first time actor Suraj Sharma), the family decides they have to leave India to survive financially.  We are told the property belongs to someone else, but the animals belong to the family and thus, they charter a Japanese ship headed to Canada with the family and animals in tow.

     When the ship runs into a massive storm in the middle of the ocean, Pi is sent to a life boat in a chaotic sequence in which animals who have become loose jump from the ship’s deck into the lowering life boat in pure desperation to survive.  Pi, who was on the deck when the storm takes a turn for the worst, is unable to get back to his family, who were sleeping in their cabin.  As Pi is thrust away by crashing waves, he witnesses the ship sink and his Mother, Father, and Brother with it.  This harrowing depiction is just the beginning of some outstanding effects work by Lee and his team. 

     Soon, Pi awakens and finds himself on the life boat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and an all too familiar Bengal tiger named Richard Parker in an obvious situation of survival of the fittest, at least initially.  The food chain runs its course, leaving Pi and the tiger alone.  Pi shows a tremendous amount of ingenuity with what’s on board the boat by constructing a series of rafts that float along side and out of the tiger’s reach.  In the beginning, he’s well hydrated and well fed from the large supply of rations on the boat and he also takes the advice of the handy survival book he finds that teaches him to build a sail, an anchor, and other useful devices.

     Unfortunately, time and weather decimate his supplies and he fears Richard Parker will soon have no choice but to feed on him. I’ve read Richard Parker is at times a real tiger and others he is a CGI creation.  Either way, the effects are seamless and allow Sharma to appear to co-exist with the tiger in a way that always looks real.  As a screen presence, Richard Parker is a fearsome creature and his movements, reflexes, and roar are awe inspiring.  In addition, Lee populates his setting with a plethora of sea life, each having its own grand entrance of sorts in specially formulated shots that take advantage of the time of day, as well as the lighting.  This is where the film truly succeeds in a visual sense as the cinematography is a thing of beauty and Lee’s use of 3D is easily the best since films like “Hugo” and “Avatar”.  In one sequence, thousands of jellyfish light up the ocean to grand effect only to introduce a giant whale that jumps out of and back into the ocean.  It is a scene to marvel and will lightly put “Life of Pi” in the forefront of the competition for technical awards.

     Like all good films, “Life of Pi” asks some interesting questions and has several nifty twists within the story.  After the bulk of the stranded at sea portion plays out, we are returned back to present day where the adult Pi tells the story of the day the Japanese investigators interviewed him in the hospital about the sunken ship. When he tells them the story as we have just seen, they don’t believe him and ask for the truth.  Pi then proceeds to tell essentially the same story, but instead each animal is a human character from the ship and he is Richard Parker.  Does this mean what we saw was just Pi’s way of dealing with the pain of a brutal survival story involving humans killing humans on the life boat?  Which of course means as Richard Parker, he was forced to do the same to defend himself, likely leaving him with tremendous guilt.  Perhaps the story with the animals helps him justify his actions in his own mind since in those situations its possible humans would have no choice but to become primal in order to survive.  In the end, we’re left with the adult Pi telling the writer “What story do you think sounds better?”, and I think both would choose the magical story Lee tells on screen.

     “Life of Pi” is one of the best films of the year with it’s astounding visual style and solid acting from the entire cast.  David Magee’s adaptation for the screen is Oscar worthy just for the simple fact it was said it could not be done.  No surprise here Lee found a way as he is one of the best visionary filmmakers of our time.  GRADE: A