Life of Pi – Review

tt0454876Life of Pi – Review

Film Review by FilmFellaDarren – 9.2/10

The journey that Yann Martel’s enthralling 2001 story has made from acclaimed book to magnificent motion picture has almost been as long and turbulent as the journey the protagonist undertakes in the film. It has taken nine years to bring to the screen and many directors have been attached to steer this ship, including M Night Shyamalan who left it to make The Lady in the Water; Alfonso Cureon who left to make the excellent Children of Men, and Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who also jumped ship.  In 2009, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee was chosen as the fourth director, but there were still more problems including budget constraints and Lee’s controversial decision to axe the film’s most high profile actor – Tobey McGuire –  on the grounds that his presence would be too jarring in a largely unknown international cast.

Usually, troubled production histories can sink the finished film. That is absolutely not the case with Life of Pi. Ang Lee has done a remarkable job of bringing Martel’s fantastical story to life. This is genuinely wondrous cinema, an involving, moving adventure film, laced with meaningful spiritually and the most spectacularly eye-popping visuals you will see this year.

The unique and entirely memorable story starts off in India, where a young Indian boy named Pi Patel is searching for an understanding of the world, exploring different religions which shape his inquisitive nature. He lives in a zoo with his family; a zoo the father of the household ambitiously wishes to transport on a ship liner to Canada in the hope of selling the animals for a good, new life-starting price. Reluctantly, he and his family embark on a Japanese ship across the Pacific, but the ship hits a ferocious storm on open waters, and Pi finds himself desperately scrambling to safety on a rowboat along with a number of petrified animals. As the waters settle down, he finds himself alone and adrift, battling numerous hazards with only his thoughts, reflections, his spiritualty and a troubled man-eating tiger for company…

Ang Lee has always been one of the most artistic directors in the film industry; this is the man of course who, not unsuccessfully, attempted to turn The Hulk into art-house cinema.  The colourful story and a choice of a director with a keen eye for consummate detail prove to be the perfect marriage of subject and artist. Every single frame has a radiant beauty that leaves a vivid impression on the viewer. There are many scenes that are so awe-inspiringly majestic that they absolutely capture the spirituality inherent in natural beauty – the scenes are so effective they will leave the viewer with goose bumps and a tingling spine. If it doesn’t win Best Art Direction and Cinematography at the Oscars next year, then the Academy will have made yet another astonishing error in judgement.

The visionary visuals bring to life an enchanting story that swiftly becomes an immersive experience for the viewer.  The sequence in which Pi is thrust from the ship into open waters is sensational, having the effect of dragging the audience out of the comfort of their chairs and into the terrifying experience of a violent shipwreck. You don’t just watch that sequence, you absolutely live it. You find yourself wincing, ducking, and diving along with the protagonist and by the end of it you realize that you are so involved with the story that Pi isn’t just joined by a tiger on the rowboat, he’s been joined by anyone lucky enough to have bought a ticket for this astonishing film.

There is a sense that the story might have plunged into something of a narrative cul-de-sac after the heights of the first sequence – since you wonder how a two hour plus narrative could be sustained by just a boy and a tiger in a boat. But again the story is expertly steered by Lee. Despite the seemingly limited setup, the story never drifts. The dynamic between the boy and the tiger only becomes more interesting and complex (Lee is somewhat experienced at keeping Crouching Tigers interesting of course) and there are so many sudden bursts of unexpected drama to keep the adventure alive.

Ultimately, the film seems to intelligently explore the question of whether our experiences shape our nature or whether our nature shapes our experiences, examining the moderated behaviour of both the tiger and the boy to illustrate this point.

The film counterbalances the edgy survival story line with a playful and enchanting sense of humour. One of the big surprises is just how much natural humour scriptwriter David Magee finds in the direst of situations.

The film sets itself up as amusing, witty, and charming, through a delightful opening montage showing how Pi got his name. The scene brings to mind the magical whimsy of Amelie and Big Fish. The winsome nature of the opening instantly allows the audience to get on board with the tone and connect with the extremely sympathetic young protagonist.

The film becomes a coming-of-age story of how a 17 year–old Indian boy uses his resourceful personality and the advice of his father to take the initiative to give himself good odds at surviving in a scenario that most men would have succumbed to. There is a strong suggestion that the boy gains strength through his unshakable faith in God. At times, it does play like a religious allegory with obvious influences from biblical epics like Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale, which will uplift anyone of a religious nature, whilst unsettling the atheists and agnostics amongst us. The religious subtext doesn’t become too forceful and definitely has context within the storyline, making the film a spiritual experience regardless of belief in any particular religion.

The film is shot in the English language but it is unmistakably an Asian creation. Although some scenes are shot in Canada, the movie is largely filmed on location in India and (the country that this film critic has lived in for the last two years) Taiwan. This little island deserves some acknowledgment for the role it played in the production of this extraordinary film, as seventy per cent of the film was shot here. Ang Lee was born in Taiwan and he clearly had a number of the rugged, naturally picturesque places in Taiwan in mind as shooting locations. Stay for the end of the credits, and you will see a long list of Taiwanese filming locations recognized including Taipei Zoo and the Southern coastal resorts of Kenting and the birth place of Ang Lee, Pingtung.

Click the link for an explanation of how digital effects company Rhythm and Hue made wonderful imager like this.

The real credit for just how extraordinary the film looks must go to digital effects company Rhythm and Hue, who built a full scale water tank in an abandoned Taiwanese airport in Taichung to film the many scenes set on the little boat.  Words can’t really convey just how much panache the digital effects team have mustered for their phenomenal visuals.  Audiences will not be able to detect how many hours went into studying the movement of water so the effects wizards could replicate it authentically. It’s also hard to believe that the many creatures seen in the film are also the product of painstaking digital effects work. There isn’t a trace of the dead-eyed look digital creatures often have on screen; the animals in this are created so naturally – stare into their eyes and you can almost feel their souls – particular the tiger – who has so much character. R and H raise the bar on special effects to an extremely high level.

The effects combined with Ang Lee’s immersive direction make the film such a lively experience.  Things fly at the screen compelling the audience to duck, dive and leap out of the chair. The film is so interactive that the effect Ang Lee was looking for in 3D, he absolutely gets in 2D.  Watch the 2D print and you’ll get the reaction intended from a 3D print but given there is context for 3D, the film will no-doubt work well with the extra dimension. Watching this in 3D IMAX must be a sensational experience.

Acting-wise newcomer Suraj Sharma gives a marvellous performance. It is not easy to hold a screen on your own for nearly an entire running time, but Suraj does it admirably, remaining calm and credible in the most unlikely of situations. He is such a likeable character, charming, compelling, enterprising, and believable. It’s hard to believe that the young actor was never in a boat with a tiger since his interactions with said beast seem so realistic.  Lee’s decision to replace McGuire in the film was absolutely the right move, since he would have looked odd in this narrative.  The rest of the cast play their parts well – there’s even a cameo from French actor Gerad Depardieu looking even more dishevelled than he usually looks.

The final act will polarize opinion since it doesn’t attempt to explain away the more surreal and fanciful latter moments of Pi’s journey.  It’s an ingeniously ambivalent conclusion that opens the film up to debate and multiple interpretations on what actually happened on Pi’s remarkable journey and it adds extra layers of emotional depth.  Suffice to say, it will leave you with an urge to throw a banana into an ocean, as everything rests on the buoyancy of bananas. Intrigued? You absolutely will be.

Life of Pi is a universal movie in the true sense of the word. It’s an epic film that will capture the imaginations of children and old alike and beguile people across cultures with its mesmerizing visuals, artistic beauty and soulful storytelling.  Ang Lee has masterfully created the most extraordinarily spectacular cinema experience of the year.


About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

3 Responses to Life of Pi – Review

  1. Mark Walker says:

    “…you realize that you are so involved with the story that Pi isn’t just joined by a tiger on the rowboat, he’s been joined by anyone lucky enough to have bought a ticket for this astonishing film.” Love this sentence Darren and that alone is enough to convince anyone to see this. Excellent write-up as always my man. Can’t wait to see it.

  2. Filmfella Darren says:

    As always Mark, I appreciate your appreciation of my articles. Have you seen the film yet? I think it is the perfect film to watch this holiday season. It has an epic feel and I’m sure it will be appealing to people of all age groups and of all backgrounds. Look out for it and other my favourite films of the year in my forthcoming best of 2012 blog.

  3. G.MOVERLEY. says:

    “Life of Pi”
    Very good review Darren. I think it will definetly get a “Oscar”,Brilliant,Fantastic,Mind-Blowing film. I will be going to see it again.
    I bet you are really excited with all the Great films being released.I.E.
    Lincoln,Les.Miserables,The Hobbit, and many more.Be in touch on Skype soon.

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