Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee.
Starring: Irrfan Khan, Suraj Sharma, Ayush Tandon, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu, James Saito.
Run Time: 127 minutes.
Life of Pi is about a young Indian boy, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), and his incredible ordeal stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I read the novel that the film had been adapted from a good while back, and an adaptation has been in production for pretty much that whole period. It’s a tough story to get right on screen, working with multiple frameworks and exploring a tonne of massive issues. It is a unique and interesting book and quite frankly, fantastic.
I’m not usually in favour of big screen adaptations of stories so deeply rooted in the imagination, and factoring the logistical (in a directorial sense) nightmare of the story being mainly set on a boat with two characters, Life of Pi was always going to be a tough sell. It’s always going to be harder to make the film interesting without the vivid world each reader creates, and Yann Martel’s perfect writing style to accompany it.
Ang Lee, a man I have never really had much time for has a filmmaker, has absolutely nailed it. The tone and humour are perfectly suited in the early scenes, and sufficiently tense and dramatic when we get to the Ocean. For once, the 3D really enhances the film, adding texture and depth to the scenery and action. Plot wise, most of the story remains intact save for a few omissions more than likely due to time constraints. The novel does so much to set the scene and introduce the themes it will explore, so I can understand little bits here and there will be lost.
The film opens with an nameless writer (Rafe Spall) meeting the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) after being told about a story that will make him believe in God. Like the in the book, we see Pi at various stages of childhood growing up around his parents’ zoo in India, before the family decide to move to Canada (bringing the animals with them to sell). Various truths and life lessons are established, before we get to the big action set piece that I had been looking forward to: the sinking of the freighter.
As a guy who will happily watch the second half of Titanic to see the boat go down, I was more than impressed with the visual spectacle. It’s disorientating and frantic, as dark waves lash the boat and drag sailors overboard, whilst animals pass by in panic. Once Pi is secured on a lifeboat however, his ordeal continues, as the storm continues to rage and he has to contend with the introduction of Richard Parker. These early scenes were my favourite, as even knowing the rest of the story I felt the sheer terror Pi does, faced with the almost certain death of life with a cold blooded killing machine.
The rendering of the wildlife (Richard Parker in particular) is spot on, and mostly feels real. I thought it might be a little too green screen for my tastes, but it worked, and you do get the impression that you’re watching a very real tiger trying to rip an unlucky actor to shreds.
The emotional clout of the film depends on the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker, and the tiger does feel like a real emoting character and is ably supported by the multiple versions of the title character around him. As the grown version, Khan brings a subtle poignancy to the role, hinting at the life changing events he is about to share. His eyes connected with the audience, and he didn’t have to say much to convey all of his conflicting feelings and emotion. Pi the Younger brings a childlike innocence (as expected from a precocious little child actor scamp), but the highest praise must be reserved for newcomer Suraj Sharma.
To take on such a weighty and pivotal role in a Christmas Oscar-bait blockbuster takes real bravery, but for it to be your first film role is something else entirely. He brings a calm assuredness to the role, tackling his fear and panic head on. It’s down to Sharma that Pi becomes the man we see later on, showing skill beyond his years and a real maturity so often lacking in Hollywood wunderkinds. His love for the dangerous man-eater he grows to depend on is heart-warming, and a real joy to watch.
My only real criticism falls on the marketing of the film. When I viewed it, the cinema was full of families with young kids, and the book certainly at least isn’t child friendly. It is dark in parts and emotionally complex, dealing with issues that little’uns aren’t ready to handle yet. That said, the kids seemed to enjoy the visuals enough, with the grown up stuff mostly sailing over their heads, with the graphic Animal Planet violence mostly implied, slightly obscured or glossed over to retain that PG rating. I would usually rant here about watering down content to increase bums on seats, but it felt real enough and the film works enough for this not to be a real issue, even though I loved the visceral impact of the novel’s sporadic and often brutal violence. The film put a real smile on my face and tugged at my heartstrings at the same time (I had a bit of dust in my eyes…) and was visually magnificent, and what more can you ask for in a winter blockbuster?
Score: 8 out of 10.
If you liked this, check out: The Hobbit, The Jungle Book, Slumdog Millionaire, Castaway.