Technology employed by sensitive hands brings to vivid life a work that would have been inconceivable onscreen until recently in Life of Pi. That great chameleon among contemporary directors, Ang Lee, achieves an admirable sense of wonder in this tall tale about a shipwrecked teenager stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, a yarn that has been adapted from the compelling best-seller with its beguiling preposterousness intact. Like the venerable entertainments of Hollywood’s classical era, this exceptionally beautiful 3D production should prove accessible to all manner of audiences, signaling substantial commercial possibilities domestically and internationally.
Yann Martel’s 2001 novel was a book with a fanciful premise so deftly handled that it won the Man Booker Prize and sold 7 million copies. Part survival story, part youthful fable, it’s man versus nature with a philosophical spin that’s easy to digest even for kids.
It’s not surprising that it took producer Gil Netter a decade to get the film made, as technology would not have permitted it to be realized, at least in anything close to its current form, until the past few years. Shot on location in India as well as in a giant tank in Taiwan (for the open-water effects scenes), Pi is an unusual example of anything-is-possible technology put at the service of a humanistic and intimate story.
The first enchantment is Pondicherry, a former French colony in southern India that looks like paradise on Earth, where the father of young Pi runs a zoo. The nimble and faithful script by David Magee (Finding Neverland) packs a good deal of character and cultural background into the first half-hour, neatly relating Pi’s unconflicted adoption of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam at age 12 and portraying the warm family life he enjoys.
But hard times prompt his father to announce a move to Canada, where he will sell all the animals. A full hour is set at sea, beginning with a storm and horrible shipwreck. When the air clears, the only survivors on a 27-foot lifeboat are Pi, an injured zebra, a maniacal hyena, a dour orangutan, a rat and a tiger.
Hunger and the law of the jungle assure that the population onboard is shortly reduced to two. For those incredulous viewers who haven’t read the novel, Pi’s ability to co-exist with the tiger is carefully addressed. Still, 227 days is a very long time to keep fed and maintain your wits on the open sea for both man and beast, and this floating journey is marked by ordeal (this must be the first film to present the spectacle of a seasick tiger) and startling sights, like luminous jellyfish setting the nighttime sea aglow.
Meticulous care is evident in every aspect of the film. The three actors playing Pi at various ages are outstanding. The lion’s (or tiger’s) share of the burden falls on 17-year-old Suraj Sharma, the only human being on view for half the film. Lee looked at 3,000 candidates for the role (deliberately avoiding Bollywood talent) and found an unknown whose emotional facility is quite impressive. Ayush Tandon is captivating as the sponge that is young Pi, but absolutely imperative to the film’s success are the heart, lucidity and gravity Irrfan Khan provides as the grown-up Pi looking back on his experience.
Creating a plausible, ever-changing physical world was the first and overarching technical challenge met by the effects team. The extra step here was rendering a tiger that would be believable in every way, from its violent movements and threatening stares to its desperate moments when, soaked through and starving, it attempts to claw its way back onto the boat. With one passing exception — a long shot of the tiger making its way through a sea of meerkats that’s a bit off — the representation is extraordinarily lifelike.
The leap of faith required for Lee to believe this could all be put up onscreen in a credible way was necessarily considerable. His fingerprints are at once invisible and all over the film in the tact, intelligence, curiosity and confidence that characterizes the undertaking. At all times, the film, shot by Claudio Miranda and with production design by David Gropman, is ravishing to look at, and the 3D work is discreetly powerful. Mychael Danna composed the emotionally fluent score.
Venue: New York Film Festival
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 21 (Fox)
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Gerard Depardieu, Ayush Tandon
Director: Ang Lee No rating, 125 minutes