Ang Lee films an unfilmable book, and does a pretty bang-up job of it
Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker-Prize-winning sea adventure of an Indian boy and a Bengal tiger is a winning combination of the narrative and the visual. Thanks to Suraj Sharma, the young actor who plays the oddly named Pi during the key period of his 227-day ordeal in a lifeboat, and to state-of-the-art CGI that makes a hyena, a zebra, a baboon and the tiger come to vivid life in 3D as they duke it out in the confines of the boat, this Life of Pi is a stunning experience. If it has shortcomings, they are those of the book. Despite the terror and the beauty, not to mention the considerable wit and invention, something is emotionally lacking. An initial description of the father’s zoo in French Ponticherry, India and the boy’s swimming lessons and spiritual explorations — he is a hindu, but also joins the Catholic church and becomes a practicing Muslim — sets things up and conceivably makes the long Jobian torment on the water seem like a testing of the soul. But that’s an idea, not a passion or a spiritual truth. This inner shortcoming may not matter to many in the audience, because as in Crouching Tiger (this tiger does a lot more than crouch), Ang Lee provides stunning eye candy and lots of excitement too. Do we ever think Pi isn’t going to make it? I don’t think so. But Sharma, who carries off his long period on screen with flying colors, is being spoken of for an Oscar nomination. Dev Patel has a rival, one with more soul and warmth if less of a comedic edge, and a similar sports and martial arts background.
What is Life of Pi ultimately about? The frame story in which the mature Pi relates his experience to a writer in Canada seeking material (Rafe Spall is the writer, Irfan Khan the older Pi) tells us that he now teaches religion and philosophy. The focus returns to him when he describes how Richard Parker (the Bengal tiger’s name), once they finally reach land on the coast of Mexico, simply walks off along the beach and disappears into the woods. Pi desperately wanted some closure, after that long time together. When he recounts this meaningless parting he weeps. He began terrified of Richard Parker, then managed, if not to tame, at least to train, him, so he didn’t get killed, and finally, exhausted and starving together, they almost became loving companions.
I think the tiger is Pi’s key to survival. Maybe the struggle with the tiger kept the struggle with hunger and the elements from being overwhelming. Ultimately Richard Parker was company: strange company, but he kept Pi from being alone. Or maybe Pi is the tiger, or the tiger is the inner demon in himself that Pi must tame (or train). There are hints — stronger in the film than in the book, I think — that all this may be invention. And then the animals in the boat may have an allegorical meaning, while the story becomes a study in the meaning of narrative itself. But this may be asking a bit much of a film that’s so pretty and ultimately so light, adapted from a book that is so focused on physical events.
It’s a good story. It’s an old-fashioned story. In a way it’s like Robinson Crusoe — only without the island and without Friday, which takes away a lot, but adds novel creatures as well as natural phenomena which the film also stunningly recreates. Ang Lee’s movie is a pleasure. But ultimately I’m not sure that it matters. However, though you never know how it will turn out when the selection is first made, it seems like a good choice for the New York Fim Festival’s opening night premiere film, which it is — well calculated to appeal to patrons who are not film buffs but might respond to an original tale beautifully told.
On the other hand, like Flight and Hyde Park on Hudson, two other selections, Life of Pi doesn’t seem like the kind of film you need to include in an “elite” and “highly selective” event like the New York Film Festival, (whose Main Slate is honed down to only 33 films). But economic and box office reality mean that you need something that won’t put off those patrons, and you need to sell tickets. Life of Pi is likely to sell plenty of tickets when it’s released, as well.
The cinematography is pretty, but the music by Mychael Danna; is conventional. The screen adaptation by David Magee (of Finding Neverland) captures a lot of the book, but minus the grittier and more harrowing or grotesque details that would take us as deep into the ordeal as Martel does. Rafe Spall is probably a less interesting presence than Tobey McGuire, who was originally going to be the writer. For that matter Irfan Khan is not as winning as his younger avatars, and the narrative sessions between Khan and Spall are somewhat clunky and obtrusive. Ayush Tandon, on the other hand, is very appealing as the young Pi who first takes on the world’s major religions. Gérard Depardieu seems wasted as the oily and repugnant ship’s cook: one can’t help feeling some of his footage wound up on the cutting room floor.
But to compensate for any shortcomings in detail or superficiality in the story, Lee provides virtuoso displays of old-fashioned cinematic skill embellished with state-of-the-art techniques, the CGI augmented by the use of the world’s largest self-generating wave tank, where the smoothly circling camera builds astounding images of the shipwreck and the lifeboat at sea, with Sharma going through heroic and convincing changes of weight and appearance and emotion in the course of Pi’s shattering but triumphant ordeal.
Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, in which as mentioned it was the opening night film, and premiered, on September 28, 2012. It shows at Mill Valley Oct. 14. The US theatrical release date (Fox) is Nov. 21; the French one (as L’Odyssée de Pi) Dec. 19; and in the UK, the day is Dec. 21.
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: David Magee (screenplay), Yann Martel (novel)
Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain