As a young boy, Pi says early in the film, "Animals have souls. I've seen it in their eyes." A teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) gets to test out his theory completely as he gets stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Life of Pi is a fantastical tale based on the Man Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel which many people have read and enjoyed including me.
I have been waiting for a film adaptation for years, ever since I finished the book when it released back in 2001. But I never expected it to be to so wondrous in this visual medium, so much so that it had the power to move me and take my breath away all over again. Of course when a master filmmaker such as Ang Lee is at its helm, you will be treated to a story told skillfully through emotions and spectacular scenery.
The film opens in Pondicherry, a remnant of French colonization in India where the Patel family runs a zoo housing all kinds of animals. The incredibly named Piscine Molitor Patel (after the finest pools in France by his father's best friend) is an eager and smart boy. He manages to cleverly change his classmates' taunts of his name to a catchy and relevant nickname for himself. He questions the world around him and embraces all religions by becoming a Hindu, a Catholic and a Muslim.
While this exasperates his father (Adil Hussain), Pi's mother (Tabu) reassures him that this is a natural way to question life. A day arrives, however, that due to hard times the Patel family has to emigrate to Canada and they do so by packing up and moving their zoo animals with them to sell in North America and cross the Pacific Ocean. Here is where the tale takes a decidedly dramatic turn.
Up until now it has just been these interesting anecdotes told by an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a writer (Rafe Spall) who wants to hear and maybe write about his incredible story. Just what exactly is his story about anyway? On a dark and stormy night in their ship's journey, sixteen-year-old Pi goes to investigate above deck and inadvertently becomes the lone human survivor of the ship that contains everything and everyone he loves and knows in his life. It plunges him in the Pacific Ocean, save the company of four other animals and then eventually down to just him and Richard Parker.
After reading the book, I often wondered about Richard Parker and his point of view. This film allows us to become a part of that challenging journey with them, those 227 days of helplessness, loneliness and emotional despair across a vast and unforgiving ocean. Pi and Richard Parker are both foes in each other's survival and yet inexplicably linked together by their unique experience.
This is by far the best 3D film I have seen maybe because I felt a more emotional connection to this than watching Avatar. I never imagined the 3D could be taken so further; the experiments with blurs, transitions, lens flares and aspect ratios all which seem so natural and right in capturing a novel to the big screen. It's almost as if it was made only for this film. Lee creates these moments of absolute devastation for Pi but in such wonderful scenes that it will make you gasp in conflicting emotions. I heard the word, 'Wow' uttered many a time in the theater I was in.
But this is a story of survival against the odds even when one is adrift at sea with their faith sorely tested. Ang Lee has made a difficult subject which many thought would never translate well onscreen come alive in ways we can't imagine. One of the biggest reasons for this is also the absolutely jaw-droppingly realistic CGI creation that is Richard Parker (hats off to the talented crew over at Rhythm and Hues) and the genuine performance of Suraj Sharma in his debut film. They become the emotional anchors for the story.
The rest of the cast has little screen time but they do their parts ably. I loved the beginning sequences set in India which were simplistic in tone but contains a lot of history and detail. The cinematography is so magnificent with frames that look like paintings out a dream and I especially enjoyed the recreation of the familiar book cover in the film. Above all, the film and Ang Lee's direction upheld the spirit of the book and have given us another medium to enjoy this incredible adventure. Don't miss it.
Life of Pi is a journey you must experience. It's going atop my list of the best film experiences I've had in a theater in years.
Directed by Ang Lee; Screenplay by David Magee; Based on the book by Yann Martel; Cinematography by Claudio Miranda; Edited by Tim Squyres; Music by Mychael Danna.
Additional cast: Gerard Depardieu, Ayush Tandon