Life of Pi is about Piscine Molitor Patel (played by Gautam Belur at 5, Ayush Tandon at 12 and Suraj Sharma at 16), comically named after a French swimming pool, and his life in Pondicherry, India. Naturally, he is teased at school for his name, which is unceremoniously changed from the elegant Paris swimming pool to pissing. In an attempt to put an end to the teasing, he masterfully writes out the never ending constant and becomes Pi. His family own a zoo, which his father is forced to sell due to financial troubles to a Canadian wildlife park. They embark on their Noah-esque voyage with their menagerie of animals to Canada. An unexpected devastating storm changes his life forever and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. This is no Disney tiger mind you despite his name Richard Parker, granted through an administrative error with the hunter who caught him. He is wild and we are reminded of this early on in the film when Pi attempts to befriend him.
Directors are taking on “unfilmable” novels with gusto lately (Ender’s Game, Cloud Atlas and Cosmopolis to name but a few). Life of Pi is no exception. I was apprehensive upon hearing that my favourite childhood tome would be given the Hollywood treatment. How can such a complex tale be transferred to the big screen even considering the latest technological advances? Stories from the film set did nothing to allay my anxiety as one director after another changed their mind and stepped down from the mammoth project, including Gravity‘s Alfonso Cuarón. Then Ang Lee arrived and stayed. In his 12th feature, Director Ang Lee quashed my doubts and restored my faith in cinema again with his beautiful portrayal of Pi’s journey of survival. Lee has proven his versatility and skill as a director ranging from a gay Western (Brokeback Mountain), period drama (Sense and Sensibility) and martial arts (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
He didn’t do it alone and his team and his cast are what made this film stand out from the rest and easily sail into my all-time top 10. David Magee faithfully adapted Yann Martel’s prose with very few deviations from the original, supported by a brilliant cast. Suraj Sharma reportedly only turned up to his audition because his younger brother insisted, and I’m glad he did. He, as a first time actor, embodied the Pi that I imagined and brought him to life as the complex, layered character that he is. Claudio Miranda and David Gropman, cinematography and production design respectively, using the advent of 3D draw you in to this magical tale playing out on the open sea. It’s not a gimmick to garner more money from you, it’s visual mastery at its best and Lee uses it to great effect and you feel as though you’re doing more than just watching the unfolding events. You become part of it.
As an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his incredible, unbelievable 227-day odyssey to a writer (Rafe Spall), we are left with more questions than answers of the young boy who adopted 3 religions at once in his youth – Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. The story is subjective and open to interpretation and though it may not make you believe in God as Pi confidently claims, it is unmissable and a miraculous achievement for the medium. Lee makes it seem like the easiest thing in the world, a narrative told with such simplicity, perfect placed, gently uplifting and surprisingly funny of a boy, a boat and a tiger. Take the plunge.
What did you think? A masterclass in storytelling and movie-making or better left on the bookshelf? Your turn on the soapbox in 3, 2, 1.