Before Ang Lee clambered aboard, M Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet were originally slated to direct a film adaptation of Yann Martel’s Life Of Pi. Eventually, each of them dropped out, with Shyamalan opting to direct Lady In The Water, while Cuaron took on Children Of Men. Although this may seem incidental to a review of a film that is part drama, part transcendental fantasy adventure, that no fewer than three big-name directors left the project says a lot about the magnitude of what Ang Lee signed up for.
Life Of Pi is shot largely at sea, and contains an incalculable number of animals and special effects shots; and as the directors of movies such as Jaws, Waterworld or Battleship will probably tell you, filming at sea can be fraught with production nightmares on its own, without adding CG effects and wild animals into the mix.
The opening credits alone feature a giraffe, a monkey, tapirs, a hummingbird, flamingos (several), a rabbit (white), goats (three), zebras (numerous), budgerigars (a flock of), warthogs, a bear (standing), another monkey, an elephant, another elephant, a hippopotamus, a boa-constrictor, two tapirs (swimming), gazelles (bunch of), an ibis, two ducks, another monkey (large nosed), two rhinos, and yet another monkey. Then there’s a finch (red plumage), a tiger, and a monitor lizard.
Life Of Pi unfolds like an ancient mariner’s tall tale, related by a middle-aged Pi Patel (Irfan Khan) to a nameless Canadian writer played by Rafe Spall. As Pi digs back into his past, Lee cuts to Pondicherry, India, where a 12-year-old Pi (here played by Ayush Tandon) grows up on the grounds of a zoo owned by his eccentric parents – hence the menagerie of creatures introduced in the opening credits.
Although raised a Hindu, Pi becomes something of a connoisseur of religions, as a series of experiences leave him swing from Hindu to Christianity, and then to Islam. Life Of Pi lays its stall out early as a movie with big themes about existence and religion, about where humans fit in the grand scheme of the animal kingdom and the cosmos. But Ang Lee invest this potentially beard-stroking subject matter with humour and (one conversation with a Christian priest aside) a lightness of touch; Pi’s youthful fascination with religions of all kinds is gently undercut by his father’s cold rationalism (“You’ll only have to collect three more religions,” he says, “And you’ll always be on holiday”), and there ‘s a rhythm and precise style of framing to these early scenes which recalls Wes Anderson.
It’s when Pi’s family head for Canada that Ang Lee slowly and subtly allows his gloves to come off. With their zoo bust, Pi’s mother and father hope to start a new life overseas, and with their animals in tow (which they hope to sell when they reach the Americas), they set off on a freighter full of Japanese sailors and a grumpy cook played by Gerard Depardieu.
When a storm whips up and sinks the boat, Pi (now 16 and played by Suraj Sharma) is left on a life raft with another unexpected survivor: a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (the backstory behind this name is too delicious to reveal in a web post), a handful of supplies and nothing but an expanse of ocean in every direction.
This turn of events is shot in a matter-of-fact way, without incidental music or protracted scenes of anguish, and at first, it’s easy to be a little nonplussed by how emotionless this potentially horrific occurrence is; it’s only later that it becomes obvious what Lee is up to. Throughout, Lee dances a thin and dangerous line between fantasy and realism, between colourful whimsy and the stark danger of being stranded at sea.
Thereafter, we follow Pi’s attempts to survive in a situation which even Job of the Bible would find absurdly unfortunate. Lee pulls no punches in establishing that the animals in his movie are sharp-fanged, unblinking predators, and if the uplifting moments of technicolor transcendence in its trailer (complete with Coldplay soundtrack) hinted at a cosy tale of survival and wonder, the director is almost scientific in his careful ordering of the wondrous with the surprisingly harsh.
Even as a moviegoer who’s grudgingly accepting of 3D rather than wholeheartedly accepting, it has to be said that the stereoscopy in Life Of Pi is subtle at worst and riveting at best. Moments of tension are given an added jolt when viewed through those flimsy specs, and the scenes of (mercifully Coldplay-free) wonder are imbued with added luminosity.
The CG effects are even better. Put simply, Life Of Pi is a movie which could not have existed a decade or two ago. Even though part of our brain might scan for signs of artifice and occasionally find it, the quality of the animation and texturing on Richard and the film’s other animals is such that even the most jaded eye will give up trying to spot the joins after a few minutes or so. This is partly thanks to sheer technical sophistication, but also thanks to the direction and cinematography, which sets us up for extraordinary sights long before they occur. By the time we’re greeted by a surreal sea of meerkats, we simply smile and nod rather than hunt for telltale pixels.
Although the effects may steal many of the scenes, the quality of the whole production is worthy of praise. Claudio Miranda’s score is ominous and wondrous, and the performances are excellent throughout.
Most importantly, Life Of Pi is a great story. Yes, it’s a story about survival that is as old as the novel itself, but its ambiguity, light and shade and sheer gall make it almost irresistible.
Life Of Pi is out in UK cinemas on the 10th December.