Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning Life of Pi is one of my favourite novels of all-time, and so I was both excited and apprehensive when I heard that it was finally released as a movie more than 10 years after it was originally published.
One of the reasons why the film took so long to adapt from the 2001 novel is because filmmakers deemed it unadaptable and unfilmable, which was certainly the way I felt when I finished reading it. But if anyone could pull it off, it would be Oscar winner Ang Lee, one of the most skilled directors of his generation.
And so I’m glad to say that the film version of Life of Pi is a huge success. While it doesn’t quite make me believe in God, as the story’s protagonist suggests, it is probably as good as it could have ever been given the inherent difficulties in bringing this wonderful tale to life.
The adapted screenplay by Oscar nominee David Magee (Finding Neverland) turned out to be surprisingly faithful to the novel (as far as I can remember anyway). Told through the voice of the titular character, it tells the story of a young Indian boy who becomes stranded on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.
The first problem, of course, is making the situation believable within its own context. The second is employing special effects that support authenticity. And the third, and possibly biggest obstacle, is to make a 2-hour film interesting when most of it is dominated by a single human character and a mostly-CGI animal incapable of dialogue.
To Lee’s credit, he overcomes all three problems with ease, or at least it feels that way. Lee’s Life of Pi comes across as a kind of surreal fable recounted by a skilled storyteller, enabling it to feel both genuine and fantastical. The special effects are seamless (Lee says his experience on the underrated Hulk made it possible) and I certainly could not tell when the tiger was real or animated. As for keeping the story interesting, Lee does so by lengthening the on-land introduction (though not unnecessarily so — it sets up the characters and the remainder of the film nicely) and by changing things up constantly so there is not a lot of repetition when they are at sea.
The performance of Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is remarkable, especially considering that it’s the teenage student’s first film. He didn’t have to do it alone but he carries the film through its toughest stretches and remained convincing all the way until the very end.
Some have criticised the film’s preachiness about god/religion and its ending, but both of these things come straight from the novel. Personally, the ending was one thing about the novel that I truly loved, and I’m glad Lee decided to keep it in, though I question his decision to rely on strictly verbal storytelling as opposed to utilizing the visual. I can’t say much more without giving things away so I’ll stop there.
Granted, there are times when the film felt a little like a prettier version of Castaway (the one with a skinny Tom Hanks and “Wilsoooooon!”) and the story occasionally felt trapped in that little lifeboat, but on the whole Life of Pi is an enchanting, poetic and visually stunning experience that’s also unexpectedly moving and thought-provoking — even for someone who has read the book. Going in, I thought I’d appreciate the film’s aesthetics and technical achievements more than anything else, but I was pleasantly surprised by the emotive storytelling and engrossing drama.
4.25 stars out of 5
PS: That said, I’m still not sold on the 3D, which despite my numerous vows I ended up paying extra for again — I thought only the introductory sequence with the animals, and maybe a few of the underwater scenes, were really enhanced by the 3D; the rest seemed perfectly fine in 2D to me. The extra large screen and superior sound from IMAX, on the other hand, was probably worth it.
PPS: I wonder what kind of film it would have been had M Night Shyamalan adapted and directed it, as rumoured earlier. That’s not bagging Mr Airbender — I’m genuinely wondering.