Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning best-seller Life of Pi is an incredibly difficult novel to adapt to film - a teenage boy and a tiger are stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for 227 days, all enveloped within a greater philosophical discussion on faith and God. An odd yet fascinating premise on paper but riddled with challenges when you have make it work cinematically.
It makes sense that it's taken 10 years for the producers to get this film made, after going through several high-profile directors and then simply waiting for the technology to catch up to the book's potential. Life of Pi, directed masterfully by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain), simply could not have been made into the mesmerizing, visually stunning film it is until just a few years ago. It's a film that makes meticulous use of visual effects and 3D technology to enrich the story at its core, rather than saddling with effects for the sake of thrills.
Bookended by a conversation between a creatively stalled writer (Rafe Spall) and a grown-up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), Life of Pi recounts Pi's story with visually sumptuous detail, shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda. Starting with Pi's childhood in India's former French colony Pondicherry, growing up in a zoo run by his parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu), director Lee gives the various animals as much character as the humans. The opening sequence at the zoo is simply delightful.
In Pondicherry, Pi discovers a unique connection with God, finding it perfectly fine to be a Hindu, Christian and Muslim, all at the same time, much to the dismay of his secular father. He also finds and loses his first love.
When the family faces financial trouble, they pack up the zoo and board a Japanese freighter with their animals in tow, headed for Canada. Somewhere out on the Pacific, the freighter gets caught in a huge storm and sinks.
Shown with terrifying poetry, the storm scene is one of the film's most engaging - wide shots that calmly watch the ferocious destruction instead of the expected shaky close up handheld shots most would use in such scenes. There's a particularly magical shot of Pi floating helplessly in the ocean, staring at the ghostly mass of the ship slowly descending into the darkness of the ocean.
After losing everyone and everything he knows, Pi finds himself the sole human survivor on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a hungry hyena, a mourning orangutan, and the majestic Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Soon enough, the food chain dictates that only Pi and the tiger survive. Now they must learn to live together.
The trickiest part of the book - the several months Pi spends stranded on the lifeboat - is what Lee grabs enthusiastically and excels at showing in the film. Over an hour of the film is dedicated to scenes on the lifeboat, and it's the most engaging part of the film. As Pi learns various survival techniques, battles hunger, dehydration and fatigue, and mourns the loss of his family, he gradually forms a relationship with Richard Parker. Lee skillfully builds the relationship arc, going from fear to understanding and eventually to deep-rooted companionship.
As the main supporting character, the tiger is developed with stunning detail by Lee and the visual effects team. An amalgamation of four actual tigers and plenty of CGI, Richard Parker comes to embody Pi's belief that animals too have souls. Never is it more evident than in an unexpectedly heartwarming scene where the tiger clamors to get back onto the boat and Pi is conflicted about whether or not to help him.
The film suffers, however, with overstated dialogue - the kind of obvious expositions that could have just as easily been summed up within the ongoing visual brilliance of the film. Pi's struggle for survival and overcoming fear become a very real embodiment of his inner spiritual conflicts. To express this, he doesn't need to yell out into the sky asking God why. The hallucination scene where Pi's innermost thoughts pour out into a wondrous montage of magical realism effectively sums up everything he's feeling. The blatantly obvious soul-searching dialogues work better in the book, but are simply not needed in the visual form.
The other issue with the film is its carefully manicured packaging that steers clear of becoming too raw or grotesque. The film is tethered along by the conversation between the writer and Pi in the latter's drab Montreal home. This situation sets up the need for voiceovers and anchors the film to a very tangible, almost boring reality. The purpose of this scenario is all too clear - to clarify anything that happens in Pi's story so everyone remains on the same level. It's a tool to play it safe, too safe in fact. And the switch from high-seas survival drama to a storytelling chat over a lunch table is jarring.
While Lee seduces the viewer with the lush imagery of the zoo, the animals and then the ocean adventures, he disappoints with the plainness of the Montreal scenes. But then again, perhaps that was the point.
The entire film rests solely on the titular character, and Lee gets the casting spot on with the the three actors playing Pi Patel - Ayush Tandon as the childhood Pi is full of intrigue and innocence and Irrfan Khan as the older, wisened Pi telling his story brings the perfect level of emotion and depth to a character that has experienced something no one else has. And Suraj Sharma, the 17-year-old newbie plucked from South Delhi to play teenage Pi, the one who experiences the incredible journey, fits into the role effortlessly. He simply steals the show.
Among the supporting cast, Adil Hussain and Tabu (as Pi's parents) are effective. Gerard Depardieu, in a brief appearance as the nasty French cook on the freighter ship, is pitch perfect.
Life of Pi is easily one of Lee's best films to date. The exploration of faith, fear and survival is handled deftly but doesn't go as deep as the book (which probably has more to do with the fact that a large corporate studio like Fox is backing the film). Above all, Lee captures the true essence of the book and translates it effortlessly into film. It's probably the most meaningful use of CGI and 3D seen so far to tell a story that's not just about the visuals but about intangible inner bonds and emotions.
It's a mesmerizing film, even for those who haven't read the book. And perhaps most importantly, its discussions on faith and the interconnectedness of religions are particularly timely in our world today. Don't miss this one!
Life of Pi had its world premiere as the opening night film at the 50th New York Film Festival. It is slated for theatrical release worldwide on November 21.