It might concern the fantastical story of a shipwrecked boy and a tiger that joins him in his lifeboat, and it might feature some astonishing 3D cinematography, but the real star of Life of Pi is director Ang Lee. 'Visually stunning' doesn't really do justice to the cavalcade of ravishing images on display here. That it is also an inspiring and moving tale as well should come as no surprise; the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility and - yes - even misfiring blockbuster Hulk has been marrying high quality content and imagery for years. But here it feels like director and material are perfectly matched, with the emotionally turbulent story given both the dramatic and visual weight it deserved.
David Magee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 2002 Man Booker Prize winning novel begins innocuously enough in mundane suburban surroundings, with Pi (played by Irrfan Khan in adult years) relating to a journalist (Rafe Spall) the events that led his younger self (the remarkable Suraj Sharma) to be living in Canada. It is in itself a beautifully shot segment, setting out the life of a zoo-owning family whose pater familias decided to up sticks, animals and all. Pi was reluctant to do so, not least because of his budding relationship with a local girl, but the sea voyage, and the life he left behind, is only the beginning of his story.
If nothing else, Life of Pi is an instant visual masterpiece. From the warm glow of home in India to the thunderous dark of the stormy sea, to the utter isolation of life as a castaway, every frame is a thing of beauty. Broken down in to several episodes, we witness Pi’s struggle to stay alive, gradually maturing as he learns to feed himself, stay sane and share his lifeboat with his aggressive fellow survivor, Richard Parker - the aforementioned tiger, mistakenly named after his captor (a sudden upsurge of pets being named Richard Parker in the wake of the film’s success would not be the least bit surprising).
As he battles the elements and deals with the local wildlife, the screen becomes Lee’s canvas; miraculous images of star-filled night skies and exotic marine life follow one after another, including a never-ending twilight, with the still sea perfectly reflecting an orange sky, the horizon disappearing altogether. The superb special effects work delivers Lee’s vision impeccably. The director uses 3D opportunely and cleverly - even changing the screen aspect ratio at times - to enhance the sense of depth and action. Even the opening credits are a joy.
When you strip away the lavish spectacle however, what makes Life of Pi so fascinating to watch, and so ripe for post-film discussion, is the delicate narrative line it treads. The story Pi recounts is incredible - and yet just plausible enough to be true. Without wanting to give too much away, a second version of events is also presented, but shorn of any imagery whatsoever; told against a background of pure white - an almost empty screen. The contrast couldn’t be greater, and makes the point of the story clear for all to see. No matter which version you personally choose to believe, and whether or not you go along with the central idea at its core, there is simply no denying its emotional power.
The only slight mis-step is an ending that rather unnecessarily tries to explain what has gone before. The bookends featuring Spall and Kahn work well enough, but Magee’s script falls in to the trap of spelling the film’s message out in big red letters. Still, it’s not enough to spoil what is a magnificent production, and something that can be universally enjoyed and admired.
It might concern the fantastical story of a shipwrecked boy and a tiger that joins him in his lifebo...