Leave it to director Ang Lee to create a thinking man’s blockbuster. In much of his past work, he has strived to imbue his stories with a deep sense of purpose—to explore themes of longing and connection. Even when dabbling in genre films, he’s tried to look past the Hollywood flash and stay true to this artistic vision, for better (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) or worse (Hulk). With Life of Pi, Lee may have found the perfect balance of spectacle and substance, creating his best outing in years.
Originally a popular novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells of Pi Patel, played by three actors in various periods of time: as a boy (Ayush Tandon), a teenager (Suraj Sharma), and an adult (Irrfan Khan), who narrates the entire story in flashback to a biographer (Rafe Spall). The young Pi’s natural curiosity extends so far as to lead him to believe in Catholicism and Islam in equal measure to his family’s Hinduism. This is a somewhat disturbing turn of events to his father (Adil Hussain), a hotel and zoo owner who prefers science and reason over religion. Lee has a lot of fun depicting this early part of the story, creating shots and piecing them together with a whimsy that matches Pi’s wide-eyed optimism.
When teenage Pi and his family must transport the animals from their zoo to Canada, their boat hits a bad storm, which Pi initially greets with excitement, running out on deck with a foolish grin to witness this terrifying and awesome validation of God’s existence. It’s hard for the audience to disagree with him, as the churning waves and thunder crashes are as magnificent a tempest as ever has been committed to film. But ultimately, the ship sinks, and Pi is left stranded in a lifeboat with limited supplies and an adult Bengal tiger—one he’s known for years from the zoo. Make no mistake, this is no Disney-fied singing and wisecracking animal. As Pi has already learned in a harrowing earlier scene, while majestic and soulful, the tiger is still a dangerous and unpredictable force of nature.
From the storm on, the film goes from visually playful to stunning. Director Lee gets a lot of mileage out of the simple idea of a boy and tiger on a small boat. When the waters are still, they reflect colorful sunsets and twinkling starfields, giving the impression the boat is adrift in some cosmic plane rather than at sea. Fish and other aquatic life swarm around in shimmering luminescence. And all of this is rendered in 3D, enhancing the visuals in subtle ways as opposed to the tsunami on the senses the typical modern action/adventure goes for.
But let’s not forget the story. From the very beginning, we know Pi winds up okay, which allows the audience to truly focus on the journey, and Pi’s attempts to not just survive, but also coexist with the tiger, to create a tentative understanding so they can both make it through. It works as both a metaphor for spiritual discovery and a straight-up adventure.
Suraj Sharma’s heartfelt performance as Pi is all the more remarkable considering the rigorous physical demands of the role, and all the time he likely had to spend reacting to empty air where the CGI tiger would later be inserted. As the adult Pi, Irrfan Khan tells his story with a refreshing simplicity and melancholy, which speaks to both the actor’s skill and the director’s sense of economy.
While relaxing into what appears to be the denouement, the film introduces a whole new wrinkle, which muddies the water a little, so to speak. I haven’t read the novel, but it seems clear this was a crucial element to the story. It’s a narrative hurdle that Lee still manages to surmount, avoiding the derailment it could have been.
Overall, Life of Pi deserves praise for its restraint as much as its visual opulence. Ang Lee has created a truly adult adventure, not because the material is salacious or violent, but because it deals with complex themes of spirituality and self-discovery in the guise of an accessible and engrossing fantasy. The film tells us there are no easy answers for Pi, or for anyone, but luckily the road to finding them can be spectacularly entertaining.
Writers: David Magee (screenplay); Yann Martel (novel)
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Suraj Sharma, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu, Tabu, Adil Hussain
Release Date: Nov. 21, 2012