Ang Lee is a director who deals in disbelief. Remember that time you saw his martial arts masterpiece ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000) for the first time – and your jaw dropped? Well, get ready to pick it off the floor again for ‘Life of Pi’ – this time with a very different sort of crouching tiger.
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Based on the best-selling novel by Canadian author Yann Martel, Lee’s film is a precious gem of a movie. Like hearing first talkie ‘The Jazz Singer’, one imagines, or watching Kubrick’s ‘stargate’ sequence in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, it truly merits that overused accolade ‘groundbreaking’.
At the heart of this 3D tale is the simplest of stories. In Montreal, the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) is sought out by a writer (Rafe Spall), for he’s been told his host has a tale to tell so astounding it will make him believe in God. And so unfurls his life story, the young Pi brought up in India with a father who owns a local zoo. When the family decides to head to North America, they board a vessel with all the animals in the hope of selling them upon arrival to start a new life. Then comes a storm of life-changing, Biblical proportions.
His family gone, Pi (Suraj Sharma) is left stranded in a lifeboat – with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. It doesn’t take too long before it’s just Pi and this beautiful but deadly feline left in the boat alone. Or rather ‘Richard Parker’ – as the tiger becomes known – hunkers down in the vessel, while Pi scampers onto an improvised raft, with just enough distance between them. Think Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away’ – only with something a mite more dangerous than a volleyball for company.
As Pi sets out to somehow outfox, train and then befriend this creature, it’s here where your jaws will begin to slump. The visual effects, led by supervisor Bill Westenhofer, are simply astounding, ‘Richard Parker’ the most life-like digital creature you will ever see. Every anatomical detail is so rich, so perfect, right down to the wet fur that clings to his body. But this magnificent beast is not the only creature with ‘wow’ factor. From a killer whale and luminescent jellyfish to an army of Meerkats, ‘Life of Pi’ boasts all the beauty and wonder of a David Attenborough documentary.
If there is a problem that’s never quite overcome, it’s simply that, ultimately, this is a story about a boy in a boat with a tiger. Never mind the allegorical connotations, with Pi stranded at sea for a good hour of the film’s 127 minute running time, the emotional life of this never matches the wondrous images Lee conjures. Newcomer Sharma excels in his role, but eventually after so long with just a big cat for company – rather like Pi – he’s left floundering without human contact. And when it eventually does come, it never quite moves you in the way you’d hope. But technically – that’s another story. For that, it’s a landmark film.