Visually powerful adaptation of fantasy-adventure novel
Ang Lee’s film version of Yann Martel’s quirky novel Life of Pi is plenty eccentric in its own right—quirky to a fault, perhaps, but not without a good deal to offer all the same.
Onscreen Martel’s exuberantly post-modernist stew of a tale becomes a flamboyantly episodic ramble—part high-flying philosophical discourse, part epic adventure, part literary puzzle, and (intermittently, but also persistently) the giddy, convoluted life story of Piscine “Pi” Patel, its central character/narrator.
The picture’s big selling point is the amazing tale Pi has to tell about losing his parents and his older brother in a disastrous shipwreck and yet also surviving adrift in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger from his parents’ zoo as his only companion. That part of the story, part mini-Titanic, part Robinson Crusoe, part nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before, takes fine and duly spectacular form in Lee’s film (even in the 2-D version that I chose over the 3-D option).
That astonishing adventure is central to the story, but it’s only one part of the narrative action. Substantial early segments of the film are devoted to more contemplative matters—an extended account of how Piscine Patel came to have that French first name and how and why he opted for his shortened nickname, and an elaborate and engaging discourse on the young man’s multi-faith, multiple-deity religious perspectives. And we get some dramatic glimpses of Pi’s difficult pre-shipwreck relations with his family and his harsh and demanding father in particular.
Pi is present here at three different stages of his life—the pre-teen younger brother (Ayush Tandon), the teenaged shipwreck survivor (Suraj Sharma), and the calm but spirited adult (Irrfan Khan) who narrates much of the film’s action. The supporting cast includes an obstreperous cook (Gérard Depardieu) aboard the ship and a writer (Rafe Spall) to whom Pi tells his perhaps incredible tale.
And the dazzling array of animatronic/ CGI creatures in the film, ferocious wild beasts and frenzied marine life, become significant characters in the story as well. Arguably, the beautifully rendered Bengal tiger (dubbed “Richard Parker” in another of the story’s name-giving events) delivers one of the two most impressive performances in the film. (Sharma delivers the other.)
A zebra, a hyena and a rat all have roles to play, initially, in Pi’s lifeboat/ark, and there are various astonishing episodes with a mid-ocean stampede of flying fish, a “floating” island populated entirely by meerkats, and most apocalyptically a cresting white whale. The latter provides the occasion for the film’s most climactic moment of rapturous visual imagery, each of which envisions living creatures blissfully afloat in a merging of sea and sky, underwater and above.
No matter then, to me, that the whole may add up to less than the sum of its parts. Some of these parts are among the best things I’ve seen at the movies this year.