Had you told me that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, a movie ostensibly about a boy trapped on a life raft, adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would be one of the most engaging, beautiful, and thought-provoking movies of the year, I would have thought you an exaggerator. And yet I sat transfixed for two hours as the story unfolded on screen. This adaptation of a popular novel stands as a brilliant fable about life, family and survival against all odds.
Irrfan Kahn (Slumdog Millionaire) stars as the aged Pi, telling the story of his life to a visiting novelist who has himself hit an inspirational wall. Where many scriptwriters would advise you to jump into the action, Lee decompresses the story and allows Pi to tell the audience about himself, including the origins of his unusual name, his dalliance with a variety of religions in his native India, and his first heartbreaking love. Once Pi gets on the boat we care about his survival, reveling in his successes and wincing with his failures.
Moreover, allowing the film to establish character gives the audience a reason to root for Pi on his amazing journey. And what a journey it is.
I won’t go into detail about the trials that face Pi while trapped on a lifeboat with a hungry tiger, but suffice to say that newcomer Suraj Sharma gives a magnificent, flawless performance as a boy who has great faith but is tested in a way that Jonah could never imagine.
The film stumbles in its closing moments, laying out the implications of Pi’s story instead of leaving the audience to interpret and divine metaphor from reality. While it removes mystery the conclusion doesn’t lessen the impact of the journey we’ve taken with our narrator.
Cinematically, Life of Pi is stunning. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda replicates the surreal historical look of Benjamin Button but with a spectacular depth of color. The reality of the events on the boat is never questioned, as we have an intimate portrait of Pi that never lets us forget about his isolation, desolation and desperation. Punctuated by magnificent 3D effects that make the ocean seem to go on into infinity while allowing a few moment of pure terror when a tiger jumps at us, Life of Pi is the best live-action implementation of the technology since Hugo.
Life of Pi is not without flaws. The ending fell flat, as mentioned. While most of the supporting cast was strong, Rafe Spall is distracting in his minor but essential role as a writer who comes to Pi seeking a story that will restore his faith in God.
On the whole, however, I was impressed with Life of Pi. It’s a religious experience but never preachy about it which is a refreshing change. Director Ang Lee often overwhelms his story with the message he’s trying to push (Brokeback Mountain, The Wedding Banquet, Hulk) but he strikes a balance with Pi. A family-appropriate story that may try the patience of younger audiences, I found Pi mesmerizing.
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