From the enchanting opening sequence, introducing the animals populating the Pondicherry Zoo, we are swept up in Ang Lee’s mesmerizing spectacle. Every frame is important and magical, and it is fitting that we begin the film reveling in the diversity of creation. Lee is a director attuned with the wonder and captivating beauty of the world, and the grace and subtlety with which he employs 3D immediately establishes itself as something unparalleled in contemporary filmmaking.
Based on Yann Martel’s unforgettable novel, the story is an uplifting, surprising, humorous and frightening allegory on human nature, taking the approach of magical realism and imbuing it with a unique brand of hyper-realism. While our narrator may be considered ‘unreliable’, his story has a truth to it that connects on a deeper level of credibility than the purely factual. Like Pi, Ang Lee spins us an incredible and absorbing narrative: Life of Pi is a film about storytelling, and promises a story that can make a person believe in God.
Pi is a curious boy in every respect. His narrative is framed through an interview with a writer, looking for inspiration, who has been guided to meet the middle-aged Pi at his home in Montreal. Through this device we are treated to a colorful pastiche of his boyhood in India, a land of dreamlike and mysterious beauty.
Pi’s family own a zoo in a botanical garden in the Bay of Bengal. As a boy Pi is inspired by religions and their many stories and majestic ceremonies. The Gods were his superheroes, he explains. This is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of religion and its splendor I have seen. Pi’s parents function as the perfect ying-yang of masculine and feminine values. Pi’s father, a man of science, tries to explain to Pi why he cannot follow all religions at once… one of many comic scenes , not least of which is the story of how Pi acquired his name.
Pi grows up. He falls in love. Calamity strikes: he must leave his beloved India, perhaps forever, for the icy land of Winnipeg. Pi’s painful exile thus begins with a boat trip, the poignant departure of a boy losing his entire world. Pi’s loss is compounded by the sudden loss of his family in a breathtaking sequence which leaves Pi shipwrecked with a tiger, a zebra a hyena and an orangutan. This is no joke: it is here some of the more horrific events in the movie transpire. Life of Pi is frequently mis-categorized as a fable, but the animals here are wild animals, and there are scenes here to give children nightmares.
Throughout Life of Pi there is seamless incorporation of animation, both in the traditional sense – fetchingly animated creation myths – and in the creatures brought to life through computer generation. Watching Richard Parker, the Tiger, we find him so expressive we are inclined to believe Pi when he says he looks into his eyes and sees a soul. I found it difficult to accept he was a purely digital creature, and the other animals are brought to life with such realism and understanding of the nuances of animal body language it feels impossible they could be mere illusions. No creatures have ever looked more alive.
It is distressing and ironic that Rhythm and Hues, the company responsible for bringing these creatures to life and realizing the other groundbreaking visual effects in the film, went bankrupt and laid off over 200 workers even as the film was receiving its Oscar. How can such work be valued so little? It is a sad comment on the state of the industry, and generated much controversy as crowds gathered outside the Oscars to protest. Lee himself was criticized for not acknowledging the company in his acceptance speech and also for complaining about the high price of visual effects.
Politics aside, Ang Lee is complete master of his medium: it is as though he has spent his life creating 3-D cinema, and in reality what this film shows us is how well traditional cinematic techniques can transfer themselves to the adapted medium. The use of old-school optical techniques such as superimposition, focus pull, contra-zoom and dissolve which Lee has managed to incorporate in his 3-D vision lend a new level of continuity, taking the great traditions of cinematic art to the next dimension .
These effects quietly add to the beauty of the experience and do not draw attention to themselves – leaving much to notice on a repeat viewing. Where 3-D and depth of focus has so far posed an irritating distraction – as the audience instinctively yet vainly attempts to bring out of focus objects into sharper relief – Lee turns this to his advantage.
He is a virtuoso in the use of surfaces, especially water and sky, and exploits all the possibilities offered by the format. One sublime sequence takes place at the Piscine Molitor, a swimming pool of such beauty it is said to refresh your soul just to swim in it. Photographed from below, the swimmers appear to be swimming in the very sky. And when Pi is out on the water, the ambiguity of sea and sky makes for stunning visuals.
Pi is out on the water a long time: 227 days alone with a hungry Bengal Tiger. Or, close to half of the film’s running time. What emerges most clearly in these scenes is the courage and spirit Pi must develop to survive, the uneasy understanding that evolves between him and the tiger, and the constant presence of the Divine. This is most evident and spectacular through the heart of a raging tempest, in the still quiet moments of dead-calm seas, and in one manna-from heaven scene involving thousands of flying fish.
As an adaptation of a novel considered by many ‘unfilmable’, Life of Pi is an unqualified triumph. The film is perfectly cast and beautifully acted throughout, and captures the spirit of the novel in a series of unforgettable images. And like the book, it leaves several mysteries unsolved. Essential viewing.