LIFE OF PI directed by Ang Lee (USA, 2012)

piHitting a financial crisis, a family from Pondicherry in India decide to cut their losses and move to Canada taking their zoo with them so that they can sell the animals to help support themselves. During the ship journey they encounter a violent storm and all die expect for a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, Pi and a Bengal tiger. Eventually this lifeboat load is reduced to just Pi and the tiger.

It’s an eccentric story that a couple of decades ago could only have been brought to the big screen in a cartoon format. Now, technology has developed to the point that director Ang Lee has been able to call upon the expertise of  Rhythm and Hues Studios in California to conjure up remarkably lifelike images of wild animals, flying fish and the changing moods of the ocean.

This studio has previously worked on films like Cat & Dogs and Narnia but nothing from their previous works reaches such artistic heights. Ang Lee adds the poetry and panache to the template. With a CV that includes Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he’s no stranger to studio trickery although the challenges here are on an unprecedented scale.

The effects are quite extraordinary and bring the tiger named Richard Parker to life. The shipwreck scene is also a breathtaking piece of pure cinema.

For Suraj Sharma, who plays the 16-year-old Pi, the job of acting with the digitalized animal was, I imagine, a weird and disorienting experience on a par with that of Bob Hoskins in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? Hoskins said this role nearly drove him mad and he only survived by seeing how his son was able to invent and play with imaginary characters.

Ang Lee

In Life Of Pi , there’s more than a suggestion that the improbable events are embellished by the adult Pi to give a good story to a writer he has befriended. An alternative, and much darker, version is told for insurance investigators in which Pi shared the boat not with animals but with the ship’s cook, a sailor and his mother.

The likelihood is that what we see is therefore nothing more than a shaggy dog story conceived to manufacture a heavy-handed religious allegory out of a brutal tale of survival.

Pi’s spiritual strength (drawn from a variety of religions) is resolute and he keeps his faith intact through the belief that a higher power helped guide him to safety. He doesn’t dwell on the reason why this God was not so benevolent to the rest of his family!

Although I wasn’t bowled over by the plot,  Ang Lee’s glossy adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller is hard to beat and well worth seeing for the spectacle alone.