Director: Ang Lee
As high concepts go, ‘a boy and a tiger in a lifeboat’ takes some beating. As an idea in itself, the plot of Life of Pi is a hard sell. As a treatise on self-belief, hope and faith, it’s near unheard of in mainstream film. It’s also wondrous to behold, as Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel sails onto the big screen with warmth and incredible craftsmanship blowing in its sails.
For all its CGI and disaster scenes, Life of Pi is first and foremost a character piece. Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) recalls to a writer (Rafe Spall) how his teenage self (newcomer Suraj Sharma) managed to survive after a ship carrying his family and their menagerie of zoo animals sank in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Had he been left on his own, it would have been a tragic tale. However, Pi is not alone. Their tiger has stowed away in the lifeboat, and a simple tragedy becomes an endurance test. What follows is a process of training/befriending the tiger whilst remaining adrift with no land in sight. The opening of the film paints a rich portrait of Pi and his family life, and reveals him to be a curious character, not least when it comes to religion, and it is this faith that drives him. Life of Pi is not driven by a given faith, but by man’s capacity for belief and hope. Screenwriter David Magee captures this theme of Martell’s novel and infuses it with genuine humanity and humour (At one point, the young Pi declares ‘Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ!’). Pi prays, but it is his belief in himself that will finally save him.
Director Ang Lee has proven himself to be a master storyteller on several occasions, but Life of Pi is his most expansive and technically adept film yet, and he is clearly unfazed by the challenges the plot presents him. The tiger is completely computer-generated, but it works for two reasons. Firstly, the CGI work is immaculate. This tiger never looks false; as far as a viewer is concerned, it lives and breathes. Meanwhile the sea is a none-deeper shade of blue, the sunsets are blinding and an encounter between Pi’s boat, some glowing algae and a whale will leave your jaw on the floor. Secondly, Sharma is an absolute revelation. Mostly acting opposite nothing in front of a greenscreen, his naturalistic and heartbreaking performance will have you blubbering into your popcorn.
For such a tight setting, Lee’s camera is rarely still, hopping about to all and any angles, while Claudio Miranda’s eye-popping cinematography brightly dazzles. The energy on display in all aspects of Life of Pi’s filmmaking is a wonder to behold, but then this material deserves no less. Like his protagonist, Ang Lee clearly believes in this material, and brings out the best in it. Pi’s belief is what guides him through his ordeal, but the film does not try to teach a definitive lesson. As the adult Pi observes of his story, ‘Why should it have a meaning?’ Life is what you make it; Life of Pi is simply astounding.