They said it was a book that couldn’t be made into a film. Like a red rag to a, um, tiger, that only encouraged someone to give it a go. It has to be said they haven’t gone about this by halves. This is a full-on immersive experience where you really do feel part of the story. Storytelling, of course, is exactly what both the book and the film are all about. The film achieves it through the dual channels of a present day interview and vivid flashback scenes. The earliest of these introduce us to the French Riviera of India where our hero’s father has taken an opportunity to open a zoo. In time his older brother arrives and then Pi himself. After an entertaining, and beautifully shot, sequence explaining how Pi was given his moniker we follow him growing up trying to work out the twin conundrums of religion and women. His solution is to study as many as possible at the same time, religions that is. Miraculously he doesn’t have as much trouble with women, soon falling in love with a young dancer. The music and the cinematography combine in all these scenes to allow you to imagine what his world might be like, even if it can feel a little like we are viewing it not so much through rose tinted, as rose-saturated, glasses.
Once we have established that everything is plain sailing for Pi we know we can expect a storm. This comes with the news that Pi’s father, Adil Hussain, who strikes the right balance between strict disciplinarian and caring father, is concerned for the safety of his family and is moving them, and the animals, to Canada. Things get a lot worse when the ship transporting them all sinks in a storm. At one point with Pi thrown deep into the water there is a beautifully tragic shot of him watching the ship sinking towards the ocean floor. Through some unusual circumstances he ends up in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and the zoo’s star attraction, Richard Parker, the tiger. It is the interaction with these animals, especially Richard Parker, that the naysayers would point to as one of the major stumbling blocks to making this a successful film. However the special effects company (Rhythm and Hues) have done an absolutely remarkable job in bringing him to life. The changing relationship between Pi and Richard Parker was one of the highlights of the book and it is just as captivating on screen. The rest of the adventure is more like a video art installation than a film, especially considering that for 3/5ths of the film the main elements are simply a small boat and the sea, the sheer number of different moods that are created is remarkable. Other than one dramatic use of 3D, which has the desired effect, it is used deftly and i think the film is better for it. The whole film is well acted with Suraj Sharma as Pi doing a very convincing job of portraying all the highs and lows especially considering that talking to a tiger and God is very much like delivering a soliloquy.
When the conclusion of the film is reached it is asked whether, if the destination is the same does it matter by which route someone reached it. Perhaps not, but this film is all about the journey and one that it is a thought-provoking pleasure to be part of.
Life of Pi is in cinemas 21st December 2012.
Director: Ang Lee
Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Runtime: 127 min
Country: USA, China