The Life of Pi
Directed by Ang Lee 2012
From Yann Martel’s novel.
Screenplay by David Magee
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel
Irrfan Khan as adult Pi Patel
I hadn’t read the book. I had one of the nine million copies in existence, but a psychological / magical realism / theological novel about a boy, the son of a zookeeper, and a tiger adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific for 227 days never appealed. It was also quoted as the ultimately unfilmable book, so I was surprised when Ang Lee took it on, and even more surprised when several correspondents said, “Forget The Hobbit … this is in a different class altogether.”
It doesn’t start too well. Fluttering exotic birds in extreme 3D over the titles are a DisneyWorld 3D cliché from 20 years ago. You get an onslaught of 3D fauna. Some of the scenes in Pondicherry have that characteristic 3D look as a series of several flat planes separated from one another, which never looks “realer” than 2D to me. But it changes. It’s only two hours later after exquisite and subtle 3D at sea … most of it is at sea … that you realize the 3D fauna was a teaser, probably an in-joke. By the time the sea is in 3D, you forget the medium (something you never do in The Hobbit).
I saw it well after compiling my “Best of 2012” reviews, but it walks away with first place (late entry category). The first half an hour in Pondicherry, India, is slow, and worryingly didactic. We see Pi exploring different religions, and it’s a touch like the video accompanying Theology 101. The family have to leave India, taking their zoo, and emigrate to Canada. Gerard Depardieu as the ship’s cook has a powerful two minute cameo, plus a few seconds in the storm, and you wonder why that should merit a name writ large on the opening credits. It’s only later, during the adult Pi’s narration of an alternative version of events that you realize those two minutes really needed to register very strongly in your memory of the film, because the cook is never seen again, but features greatly in the later narration.
The Japanese ship carrying them gets wrecked at sea. Forget The Perfect Storm, I’ve never seen a storm at sea to match this one, nor one in which so many things happen.
Then you have ninety minutes of a bloke on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a tiger, and 90% is just bloke plus tiger, and it’s sublime. Cinema at its best.
Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi
The story is full of levels, definitely Jung not Freud. I loved Irrfan Khan’s simple direct face-to-camera discussion at the end as the adult Pi in Montreal, coupled with Surjan Sharma’s narration of the alternative story from his hospital bed . Irrfan Khan has the most sympathetic and engaging face, and his discussion of the story, with just him in close up, is as magical and involving as the extreme SFX pieces.
You know in your heart-of-hearts that it’s all SFX, but that thought whisks away as soon as they get to sea. It achieves that bridge, a thought-provoking film that’s entirely enjoyable, even though the couple next to us say loudly ‘Look, Sharks!’ ‘Look, Meerkats!’ ‘Look a whale!’ ‘Look, it’s him’ ‘That’s the tiger again!’ throughout the entire film, while munching through a large bucket of popcorn each with rapid mechanical arm movements (right in my peripheral vision). Sorry to be so snotty, but their obvious enjoyment proves the film appeals across a wide IQ range.
This is a film about dreams, about God, about alternative realities … and it completely filled the cinema. Five stars, unequivocally.
* Footnote: we went back to see it again four days later, and it hadn’t lost a thing. When you rewatch something this complex cinematically, you tend to look for the “joins” in the SFX, but I didn’t see any. Nor was I in the mood to look for them.