Ang Lee is a pretty interesting filmmaker. I love that every film he does is extremely different from his last. Throughout his career he has tackled many different genres, with mostly successful results. I haven’t seen his first few films (WEDDING BANQUET, EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN), but I’ve seen every one since SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. I liked that one. His next film THE ICE STORM is a depressing masterpiece. RACE WITH THE DEVIL was a disappointing western. But the martial arts romance CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON is my favorite film of his. Going against popular opinion, I really like his take on THE HULK (and is also my daughter’s favorite superhero flick). BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is solid, though I found it a tad overrated. LUST, CAUTION was a beautiful and haunting film. My least favorite film of his was his last, TAKING WOODSTOCK, which I found to be well made, but wasn’t engaging at all. Now, I haven’t read the book for LIFE OF PI, but the trailers got me excited as it appeared that Lee was making a film that, yet again, was completely different from anything he has done before.
The movie begins with a writer interviewing a man named Pi, after hearing that he had a great story from a reliable source. Pi starts his story by talking about his adolescence, how he got the name Pi, his obsessive curiosity with different religions and his first love. We also learn that his family ran a zoo, but after many years they ran out of money, so they sold it to a buyer overseas. They also plan on moving to the states, so they take a cruise ship. But something tragic happens. A ferocious storm causes the ship to sink and Pi escapes on a lifeboat. He is lost at sea with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a deadly Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. On this physical and spiritual journey, he must learn not only to survive, but to have faith in God.
This couldn’t have been easy to make. Not only did it seem like a daunting task visually, but to get the spiritual vibe without being overtly preachy must have been mentally exhausting. I applaud Ang Lee for tackling this huge project. It’s one of those that if it’s going to fail, it’s going to fail HUGE. Thankfully, that’s not the case here. Lee hit this one out of the park. The visual style is absolutely stunning, and I really connected with the spiritual aspect of the story.
It takes nearly 45 minutes for Pi to get on the lifeboat with Richard Parker, but the movie is already fantastic to behold even before it gets to that point. In a briskly paced and stylishly slick first act, we get to know who Pi is and what he has gone through during the first part of his life. An ordinary filmmaker might have shot this section in a more grounded way before the story gets to the fantastical stuff, but Lee let’s this portion unfold like a whimsical fairytale, with awesomely odd editing that reminded me of Ang’s HULK film. We see the world through the eyes of young Pi. I love how he sees a relative of his, who has a comic book-like physique in a bathing suit, or how Pi interacts with his peers at school. It definitely sets us up for the imaginative journey that is yet to come.
The shipwreck scene is on par with the plane crash in CASTAWAY. The visual effects are astounding here as Pi swims through the water-filled ship as he passes Zebras and other animals swimming for their lives. Once on the lifeboat, the interaction between Pi and Richard Parker is mind-blowing. The mixture of real animals and CGI is seamless. The way their relationship builds is fascinating to watch. Pi knows that the tiger can kill him at any moment, but he tries to tame him so they can at least tolerate each other. Pi even grows attached to the fierce animal as they face storms, flying fish, whales and an island of temptation (which is a splendidly abstract and surreal sequence, as they land on an island that is inhabited by meerkats). The tiger is a true supporting character and is every bit as engaging as any other human counterpart the film has to offer. In fact, he’s arguably the MOST engaging character in the picture.
The final act ponders and contemplates on the story we just saw, making the viewer question things that there are no clear answers to. I love movies that challenge me like this. If you’re looking for a clear answer, look elsewhere, but for those who love films that keep them on their toes, you’ll love it! It’s not all intellectual mumbo-jumbo though. The film is actually immensely entertaining on top of being satisfyingly sophisticated. There are many set pieces that will “wow” your sense of wonder. I love the questions the film brings up. I wouldn’t consider myself religious, but I consider myself spiritual. I love how Pi follows multiple religions. That really stuck with me. Maybe religion isn’t as clear-cut as following one type of religion. It’s things like these the movie brings to attention that could spark conversations for hours on end.
The acting is quite good. Irrgan Khan as the older version of Pi being interviewed is wonderful. He has a great warmth to him and is a fantastic storyteller. He definitely makes the story sound legendary the way he tells it. Rafe Spall is nicely understated as the reporter interviewing Pi. He is the viewer’s “in” and is easy to identify with. I’m glad they re-shot these scenes with him, because they originally did it with Tobey Maguire, and while I think he’s a good actor, his presence would have been distracting. Lee made the right choice by casting mostly unknowns in the major roles. The only other notable supporting cast member would be Gerard Depardieu, who is fine as the ship’s cook, but doesn’t really get to do anything. But the film really belongs to Suraj Sharma, who makes his acting debut as Pi. His work is really impressive considering that he has to carry over half the picture single-handedly. Granted, he is backed up by a cracker jack FX team that supplies him with animals for his character to interact with. But Sharma basically had to react to nothing when filming the scenes with his animal co-stars, and that’s an amazing achievement.
Ang Lee directs the hell out of this flick. The camera is rarely static as it glides across the water, around the life raft, or giving us a bird’s-eye view of the ocean. The shots are simply gorgeous. The visual awesomeness of the life raft floating on the reflection of a sunset is one of the most memorable images captured on film in years. The story is wonderful. Like I said, it’s a conversation piece. It’s usually not hip to talk about religion, but movie is brave enough to question belief and faith. It was a refreshing thing to experience. The music by Mychael Danna has an India flavor to it, but is extraordinary epic and has some beautiful themes throughout. It’s a lovely score.
I took my 9-year-old daughter to this. Now, I will admit that even though this movie is rated PG, I wouldn’t recommend bringing just any kid to this. It’s intense. Not just what you see on-screen, but the thematic elements are going to be too much for a lot of kids to wrap their heads around. My daughter is a bit different from most kids. Since she has been coming to press screenings with me for the past 5 years now, she has seen a lot of mature films. Heck, last year her favorite films included THE HELP, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS and EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. She absolutely loved this movie. I think it’s her favorite film of the year so far. She asked so many questions, and actually figured out all by herself what the ending of the movie means to her. It was a tremendous joy to experience this wonderful movie with her. She’s already been bugging me take her to it again. So I guess what I’m saying here is “know your kids”. You should know if they could emotionally handle or comprehend something as heavy as LIFE OF PI.
Ang Lee has truly made a stunning piece of work. It works as both a man vs. nature adventure and a spiritual journey. The direction is inspired, the acting is outstanding, and the story is beyond compelling. This is all topped with some of the best state-of-the-art special effects of the year. Yes, it’s mostly all CGI, and it doesn’t look real. But it’s not supposed to. It’s supposed to look other worldly, like a fairy tale. And that’s exactly what this movie is. It’s a beautifully crafted, and spiritually satisfying fairy tale. This is one of the year’s best films, and I highly recommend it for anyone who loves cinema and what cinema can do when a visionary filmmaker gets a hold of a wonderful and important story. Don’t miss this! ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.
– Running time: 2hrs. 6min.