Ang Lee's Life of Pi stands as the most visually arresting film since Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life last year and the biggest evolutionary leap in 3-D since James Cameron's Avatar in 2009. It's a grand, big-screen spectacle in every sense of the term, with fantastic spectacles rendered on screen as if ripped from a dream.
For anyone who still questions the need for movie houses in the face of bigger and better home theater systems, this is the kind of cinematic grandeur that simply be replicated by any home system not owned by the likes of Lucas, Spielberg, or Scorsese.
Yet as much that will be written about Life of Pi's beauty, Lee, along with screenwriter and Flint, Mich., native David Magee, should also be praised for successfully shepherding Yann Martel's fantasy-adventure novel to the screen — no small feat, given that much of the story takes place on a lifeboat in an ocean with only a teenage boy named Pi and a Bengal tiger to guide us.
Given those structural limitations, the movie-making pair weren't given much to work with in terms of a building their sweeping film, other than the incredible story of survival in the face of Job-like obstacles.
Yet we know almost immediately that Pi survives his oceanic ordeal, because it is an older version of himself, as played by Irrfan Khan, who shares his incredible adventure to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) struggling for ideas for another book. In Pi's story, he's found a whopper of a tale.
The teenage Pi, played by unknown Suraj Sharma in a triumphant debut, is a precocious and good-natured son. Unlike his atheist father, Pi has embraced the tenets of several religions at once, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
Pi's faith in many forms of God is severely tested when the Japanese transport ship that he, his family, and their zoo animals are aboard sinks during a storm somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. His family was leaving India for a new life in Canada, and the only survivors of the doomed voyage are an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and a hyena, along with Pi and the tiger, named, amusingly enough, Richard Parker. Within days the hyena kills and eats the zebra, and then turns on the orangutan. Just as the hyena sets its sights on Pi, the tiger roars up from the lower deck isolation of this 40-foot lifeboat to kill the hungry scavenger.
Despite the tiger saving his life, Pi and Richard Parker have an uneasy relationship, with the human leaving the boat for the safety of a makeshift raft he cobbled together and has tethered to the bigger craft. But as food and water supplies run dangerously low, Pi must venture back to the lifeboat to restock and risk confronting the increasingly hungry and thirsty beast.
Pi and Richard Parker's relationship changes as their days on the boat increase, including mutual fear of one another, growing anger over their predicament, and finally trust in knowing they must rely on each other to survive.
Their Noah's Ark adventure can be wondrous, with sublime and spectacular moments of nature, especially an inspiring night visit by a breaching whale and luminescent jellyfish. But it's also full of terrifying dangers, including an island that consumes its inhabitants, like some fantastic Venus Flytrap. It's little wonder that as the older Pi recounts his tale, the writer sits transfixed through it all, as do we in the audience.
There's an abundance of strong religious subtext and allegory throughout the movie. It's no surprise that anyone in Pi's circumstances would be given to prayer in such desperation, but it's the older and wiser Pi's now concrete faith that resonates most, as he has not wavered in his beliefs decades later.
And while the film maintains a reverent sense of the miraculous and God's role in it, it also respects the dual intention of Martel's work, including a seismic jolt in the narrative that utterly transforms our relationship to the story and the characters. Life of Pi is a rarity in cinema: a film that demands a second examination by audiences simply to fully digest the depth and meaning of its message. Concerned fans of the novel worried how the book's twist would transition to the film adaptation, may breathe easier knowing that Lee as a filmmaker successfully pulls off this feat with deft artistry and diligent care.
Lee proves himself the right choice for this project, as so many other filmmakers most assuredly would have bungled this moment — or just as unfortunate, telegraphed it far too soon.
Life of Pi proves to have the heart of a small art film with the big aspirations of a major blockbuster. And on the big screen, there's nothing else quite like it.
Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay by David Magee, based on the Yann Martel novel. A Fox 2000 release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. Running time: 125 minutes.
Critic's rating: ****
Pi Patel.............Suraj Sharma
Older Pi.............Irrfan Khan
The Writer..........Rafe Spall
Contact Kirk Baird at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6734.