In February 2010, author Yann Martel received an envelope from the White House. Inside, there was a two-paragraph note: “My daughter and I just finished reading Life of Pi together. Both of us agreed we prefer the story with animals. It is a lovely book—an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling. Thank you."
The letter was signed by President Barack Obama.
After ten years in Hollywood development hell, that saw directors M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet come onboard only to jump ship, Martel’s 2001 bestselling novel Life of Pi has finally completed its journey to the big screen—with Oscar-winning filmmaker Ang Lee at the helm.
Like another highly anticipated fall film, the centuries-spanning saga Cloud Atlas, Martel’s novel would have been unfilmable a decade ago. However, thanks to the rapid evolution of 3D technology, Lee’s silver screen adaptation made its world premiere as the opening-night film of the 50th New York Film Festival (it opens on Nov. 21 nationwide).
“You’re warned to never make a movie featuring kids, animals, water or 3D,” joked Lee as he introduced the film, “You’re going to see them all here.”
The film opens with Pi (Irrfan Khan), a grown man, reminiscing to a novelist (Rafe Spall) about his childhood. (Lee regular Tobey Maguire was originally cast as the novelist, but Lee cut him out of the film and re-shot his scenes, describing his presence as “too jarringly recognizable.”) Born with the name Piscine, after the most beautiful swimming pool in France, Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India, a former French colony that’s not unlike a seaside village in the Côte d'Azur. There, his father, Santosh Patel (Adil Hussain), and his beautiful mother (Tabu), run a zoo. Both the visual sumptuousness, as well as the stunning usage of 3D, are immediately evident, as a host of exotic animals tantalize—and occasionally scamper toward—the viewer.
Pi was born a Hindu, but as a young teenager, is drawn to both Christianity and Islam, and begins to follow all three religions. He even wishes to be baptized, much to the shame of his father. “Faith is a house with many rooms,” he later says.
Due to political pressures back home, Pi’s family is forced to sell their zoo, eventually boarding a Japanese freighter to transport the animals, and the family, to Canada. En route, the ship capsizes after battling a terrible storm, eventually leaving 17-year-old Pi stranded in a lifeboat along with a zebra, a pesky hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger that goes by the name of Richard Parker. By the time the food chain is established, only Pi and the menacing tiger remain.
This Cast Away-like middle section provides the bulk of the film’s action, and dazzling visuals, as Pi and Parker are stranded aboard their miniature vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for 227 days—or 75 minutes in running time. Many of the images resemble magnificent paintings come to life; there’s a scene where a sea of bioluminescent fish ignite the water at night, and another in which a gigantic sperm whale explodes from the ocean then crashes back down into the water. The storm sequences, too, are terrifyingly realistic, enhanced by nimble usage of 3D and Lee’s engaging long takes.
As the days aboard “Pi’s ark,” as he calls it, progress, Pi, in a not-so-thinly-veiled metaphor, manages to tame the beast by a combination of Pavlovian conditioning and sheer force of will, to the point where the two form a beautiful, loving friendship (a la Christian the Lion and his owners). And the crouching tiger (sorry for that) is rendered in gorgeous, utterly convincing CGI.
The actor who plays 17-year-old Pi, Suraj Sharma, was a newcomer selected from a group of 3,000 boys who auditioned for the role. Forced to carry the middle portion of the film while stranded at sea, Sharma delivers, imbuing Pi with deep emotional honesty. From an overall visual standpoint, those scenes combine the breathtaking vistas of Lee’s Brokeback Mountain with the ethereal, balletic beauty of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
This is, indeed, one of the most beautiful-looking films since Slumdog Millionaire , although, unlike that Danny Boyle masterpiece—which was also told in flashbacks, featured an all-Indian cast and included Irrfan Khan—Life of Pi does leave holes in the viewer’s larger vision of Pi and his character development. And the book-ended opening and closing scenes don’t quite live up to the thrilling middle.
Nevertheless, Ang Lee’s visual fairy tale should make some noise come awards season—at the very least in any and every technical category.