Director Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel The Life of Pi may not be the year’s best film – though in my estimation it’s not far off. What’s undeniable, though, is that it’s the best-looking – a gorgeous, ravishing feast for the eyes. You’ll emerge from it feeling dazzled – in a good way.
It tells an epic story – of Pi, a teenage Indian boy from Pondicherry whose parents own a zoo. When the family decides to re-locate they take all their animals and board a container ship heading for the Pacific. A massive storm hits, the ship goes down and everyone aboard is drowned except for Pi and four zoo creatures, notably a man-eating tiger named Richard Parker. Miles from land on a small drifting lifeboat, boy and tiger eye each other warily while trying to stay alive.
Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) has filmed the story in 3-D, and though I’m generally rather sceptical about donning those wretched glasses to watch a film, it must be said that this one is vividly enhanced by 3-D; of the recent crop of 3-D movies, only James Cameron’s Avatar, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Wim Wenders’s Pina use the extra dimension so brilliantly.
The same is true of the visual effects on which Life of Pi is so dependent; I deplore the way computer-generated imagery is often used as a sensational visual device to paper over cracks in the telling of a story. But here the visual effects are simply remarkable; all the zoo animals, notably Richard Parker, are rendered by visual effects and they look staggeringly real. Effects are also to be credited when a shoal of flying fish almost overrun the small craft; the only logical response is to gape in wonder.
For all this, Martel’s story, with its spiritual overtones and its playful attitude to story-telling, is adapted faithfully and comprehensively; I sense that this is one film adapted from a much-loved book that its original readers will like.
First-time actor Suraj Sharma makes a perfectly good young Pi, and has clearly perfected the art of acting against a void; remember, he couldn’t see the ‘animals’ on set with whom he was meant to be interacting. That wonderful character actor Irrfan Khan is a calm, almost beatific presence as the middle-aged Pi, relating the story of his epic adventure years later.
It’s not perfect, but for the most part Life of Pi is utterly spectacular – a reaffirmation of how the big screen can astonish, entrance and come close to overwhelming an audience.
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