NEW YORK – Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a big, beautiful movie about big, beautiful ideas.
Wonderfully adapted from the novel by Yann Martel, “Pi” is a magical film. It’s a philosophical and metaphysical exploration of faith, religion and, most importantly, why we tell stories: fruits that aren’t always easy to digest in a major Hollywood movie. But director Ang Lee does a masterful job at weaving the philosophy with the spectacle, combining both into a seamless and exciting adventure.
A writer (Rafe Spall) sits down in present-day Canada with Pi (Irrfan Khan) and asks to be told an infamous story that would supposedly make him believe in God. Pi then takes us on an unbelievable journey back to his youth in India, where he was raised at a zoo in Pondicherry. As a precocious young man, Pi (Suraj Sharma) saw no distinct lines between religions and faiths. Against his father’s chagrin, Pi set about learning about the Hindu gods, Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, combining all their teachings together with the intention of finding life’s meaning.
Yet, unfortunate circumstances force Pi and his family to move to North America, bringing the animals from the zoo with them. Their ship is capsized and Pi is left stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. What ensues is a wild coming-of-age journey of man versus nature, faith versus the unknown, fiction versus truth.
Having a film that primarily takes place in one location with one actor is a daunting thing for an audience to have to endure. In order for that scenario to be a successful one, the actor needs to exceed the basic duties of acting. The entire weight of the film rests on the shoulders of one person, in this case Suraj Sharma, and the young actor, though quite good, is just barely strong enough to support the emotion and intensity required to sustain commitment. Fortunately, David Magee’s screenplay keeps the film moving, plus Pi’s voice-over, used as an accelerator for the story, is well placed, giving the audience access to his conscience, his doubts, fears and lamentations.
Though the entire scenario of a man trapped on a small boat with a Bengal tiger sounds completely unbelievable, Lee’s execution of the action on the lifeboat is flawless. He makes Pi’s newly shared habitat with Richard Parker seem plausible and that, more than anything, is the gift of a very talented director.
“Pi” features some of the best use of 3D yet. Whether or not you’re into 3D, Lee uses the technique to really bring out the vibrant colors of Pondicherry or accentuate the reflective, contemplative and sometimes frightening ocean. “Pi” flows from one spectacular set-piece to the next, and not since last year’s “Hugo” has 3D really captured the magic of the movies. Claudio Miranda’s sumptuous photography is so rich one can almost smell the aromas of Pi’s home or taste salt of the sea.
If nothing else, “Pi” is one remarkably beautiful looking film.
For the most part the special effects are pretty good. It’s no easy feat to have a digital tiger in frame for the majority of the film. The visual effects, though, run the gamut of awe-inspiring to noticeably chintzy. Perhaps the 3D rendering magnifies the unattractive digital dirt as much as it elevates the awesome, groundbreaking effects.
When Pi’s voice-over isn’t guiding the story, Mychael Danna’s lovely music, featuring a beautiful lullaby performed by Indian singer Bombay Jayashri, guides us from the vibrant colors of Pondicherry to the vast and sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting, ocean.
For all the questions posed in “Pi,” one goes completely unanswered: why, for some very strange reason, is Gerard Depardieu briefly in this film? The iconic actor appears as racist cook on the freighter that takes Pi and his family to North America. It’s a throwaway part for such famous actor. But there he is, nonetheless.
This entire journey, thought-provoking and visually stunning, all comes down to an extremely well-executed ending. Irrfan Khan, as Old Pi, gives a stand-out performance, and his telling of the story is alone worth the price of admission.
“Life of Pi” is a graceful picture and does what movies do best: it tells a great story and shows a piece of our world with clear, wide-open eyes.