Film Review | Life of Pi

It took a while to get to the big screen, but Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning novel about an Indian boy trapped on a boat with a Bengal tiger is a rich and visually dazzling coming-of-age tale that's well worth the wait.

Adrift with a beast: Suraj Sharma is stranded in the ocean with a Bengal tiger in this dazzling adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning novel.
Adrift with a beast: Suraj Sharma is stranded in the ocean with a Bengal tiger in this dazzling adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning novel.


Though the iconic image of Yann Martel's award-winning 2001 novel, Life of Pi, remains the arresting picture of a young man and a tiger stranded on a boat, both the book and its new film adaptation by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) take quite a while to get to that point.

The many-layered narrative in fact begins in very cosy Canadian surroundings, when a local novelist (Rafe Spall) pays a visit to Indian immigrant Piscine 'Pi' Patel (Irrfan Khan), on the advice of a mutual acquaintance, who tells the writer that Pi has an amazing story to tell.

It's a challenge that the émigré doesn't shrink away from, either. Before he begins to tell the story of the shipwreck en route from India to Canada which left him stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, Pi vows the writer that as soon as he's done, he would give him reason to "believe in God".

It's not entirely clear which god he's referring to, however, as the young Piscine (Gautam Belur at five years old, Ayush Tandon as a pre-teen and, ultimately, Suraj Sharma in the central teenage role), proves to be a spiritually adventurous lad, mixing in different religions to his worldview as he encounters them, much to the chagrin of his staunchly atheist zoo-owner father Santosh (Adil Hussain).

But before Pi even comes close to achieving any form of spiritual epiphany, financial hardship uproots the family to Canada, where Santosh aims to sell his zoo animals - among them the Bengal tiger 'Richard Parker' (there's a fun story behind both our protagonists' names).

And so we arrive to the central image: a violent storm leads to a shipwreck that kills Pi's family, along with most of the zoo animals save for a handful that hitch a ride on the rescue boat with a clueless and grief-stricken Pi.

But it's only a matter of time until the most dangerous of stowaways reveals himself - forcing Pi to consolidate of all his religious flirtations, and to grow up very quickly, if he's to remain sane... and alive.

The story-within-a-story structure might be one reason why Martel's novel, optioned for a film as early as 2003, has had to endure an odyssey to match Pi's own in its trip to the big screen. How about a central conceit which, while being instantly compelling, doesn't allow for all that many plot twists (our protagonists are boat bound, and all the significant developments are expressed in Pi's monologue)? 

Challenge accepted? Okay, then: a supporting cast consisting almost entirely of exotic animals - let's not forget about the tiger for one second, either - which would be impossible to train and so call for an expensive and on-the-ball effects team.

Happily, visionary director Ang Lee proves to have the cinematic cajones necessary to marshal this dazzling project to life, while also somehow managing to craft a keenly intelligent and emotionally rich film without slipping into Hollywood hokum.

But the spoils should be distributed as evenly as possible, and Suraj Sharma has just made himself into a rising star.

Acting, for the most part, to nothing (circumstance dictated for the tiger to be rendered in CGI for most scenes) he assumes a kind of modern-day Mowgli role which is easy to like but hard to pull off. A tiny misstep would have plunged his performance into cheesy heart-stringing or annoying histrionics but instead, the young actor has us believe the protagonist's journey from cosy surroundings into the harshest of terrains, and the parallel, interior trek from naiveté to heightened self-awareness that this implies.

But what makes Life of Pi a truly winning entry, rather than a series of dazzling visual tableaux strung together by an emotionally familiar coming-of-age narrative, is that it maintains a successful balance between its rich thematic underpinnings (confronting nothing less grand than the nature of belief and man's place in the universe) and its whimsical, often gently humourous touch.

Being very much a postmodern narrative, Martel's novel, while offering up plenty (exotic locales, philosophical and theological outlooks, memorable characters and rich insights and perceptions), also poses more questions than it answers.

It's all the more commendable, then, that Lee follows through on this wonderful ambivalence, fighting off the knee-jerk tendency to wrap everything up in a neat bow.

Lee was robbed of a Best Picture Oscar for Brokeback Mountain in 2006, when an disgraceful, baffling Academy jury decided to lavish the forgettable, laboured racism-drama Crash with all the key accolades.

But with Life of Pi, he's ventured where other directors feared to tread, and emerged victorious.

This year, an omission could prove to be an unpardonable error.

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