Normally when a book is deemed unfilmable, it’s because it’s thought that the plot and the way it’s told would be tough to successfully transfer to the big screen. With Life Of Pi it was more due to business considerations. It’s largely a story about an Indian boy alone at sea with only a tiger for company, so any adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning book was bound to cost a lot to make, not least in special effects. With little room for big stars or traditional action – and just one human character for most of the running time – it was a gamble most believed no studio would take.
Indeed Life Of Pi was stuck in development for years, but when Ang Lee came on-board, Fox Searchlight decided it was a risk worth taking (a decision bolstered by the success of Slumdog Millionaire) and so handed him the $100 million plus he needed to make the movie. The other thing that made them think it might be worth making was the re-emergence of 3D, something Ang Lee has taken to enthusiastically with Life Of Pi.
A writer (Rafe Spall) goes to visit a man called Pi (Irffan Khan), who he’s been told has an incredible story that will ‘make him believe in God’. Pi recounts to him his early life in India, from how he was named after a swimming pool to his home in a zoo. When he is a teenager (played by Suraj Sharma), Pi’s father decides they must emigrate to Canada and that if they take the animals with them, they can sell them for good money when they arrive. Soon the family and critters are on-board a cargo ship, taking them away from everything they’ve ever known.
A huge storm blows up and the ship begins to sink. Pi makes it to a lifeboat and is soon adrift with only a zebra, orang-utan and a hyena for company. Well, that’s all he thinks there is, but under the tarpaulin lurks a tiger called Richard Parker. Soon it’s only Pi and the big cat left, drifting across the ocean with no idea when, or if, they might be rescued.
Although a movie that’s largely about a boy in a boat with a tiger might not sound that interesting, Life Of Pi never stops being absorbing. For a start Suraj Sharma is an amazing discovery as the teenage Pi. The Indian actor apparently only tried out for the part after he went along to the auditions with a friend, but he’s magnetic in the central role, showing astonishing skill and emotion in a part where a huge amount is asked of him. He deserves an Oscar nomination, but we’ll have to wait and see if he gets one.
Much of the film is about how Pi manages to survive in a very cramped space with an (incredibly convincing, largely CGI) tiger. Although you might expect this to be a semi-tame animal that soon learns to co-exist with its human companion, part of the point of the film is that this is not the case. Richard Parker is wild and untameable, unable to see that its innate instincts are as dangerous for it as they are for Pi, considering the position they’re both in. It takes ingenuity for Pi to survive, but with only the tiger for company he cannot help but form a bond with it – one he can’t tell if the animal shares.
While that’s the central spine of the plot, there’s a whole other side to Life Of Pi which is far more spiritual and concerned with the core of humanity. That’s not to says it’s preachy, as it isn’t, but early on we discover that Pi is a Hindu, Christian and Muslim, and his journey across the sea causes him to question God as well as just about everything about himself. Again that might sound dull, but it’s so seamlessly woven into the plot that it never feels intrusive or over-bearing.
Even if you want to ignore all that, there’s a lot on offer from the imagery. With a lot of movies it doesn’t really make much difference if you watch them in 3D or not, but this is one I’d advise you to seek out with the added dimension. Great care has been taken to produce some beautiful and immersive 3D images, from an ‘attack’ by flying fish and a whale emerging from the deep to the storm that sinks the ship and an island covered in meerkats.
And yes, that final image is as surreal as it sounds, but it’s certainly beautiful. Life Of Pi is extremely artfully put together to take full advantage of the 3D. It’s showy when it need to be with quite a few ‘wow’ moments, but never to the point of throwing you out of the story – indeed it’s one of the few cases where 3D is actively used to pull you further into the wonder and terror that the central character experiences.
On the downside, I can imagine some literal-minded viewers feeling a little cheated by the ending, although others will absolute adore the way it causes you to reconsider everything you’ve seen. All the way through it skirts on the edge of believability, rarely tipping over the edge and only then going to a point where it seems Pi is going a bit nuts being stuck out at sea for weeks on end. I won’t say any more, but it concludes with an interesting take on the nature of reality and a meditation on the ideas behind magic realism. But more than that, it’s a beautiful film that keeps you far more entertained than you might expect.
Overall Verdict: As involving as it is meditative and as beautiful as it is thought provoking, Life Of Pi is an impressive achievement. Those who like their entertainment literal and with a simple attitude to believability might want to leave this alone, but for everyone else this is a film that will leave you entertained and with things to think about. Plus it’s got a tiger in it, which is always cool.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac