Burning bright



Rated 5.0

It’s that time of year when studios release their Oscar hopefuls, continuing the embraced tradition of saving the best—or, what they hope to convince us is the best—for last.

So here’s Life of Pi, an adaptation of the seemingly unfilmable novel by Yann Martel about a 14-year-old boy spending more than 200 days at sea, alone on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger that totally wants to eat his face.

Many took a crack at making the 2001 spiritual novel into a film, and many just threw their hands up in the air, said “Screw this, I’m going to Cabo!” and departed.

I never read the book, but seeing a synopsis of the story had me thinking it would be best to leave this particular fable on the page. It appeared it would be a real bitch to film.

Then I read somebody got director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) on the project. For me, this means hold on to your asses because something amazing is on the way.

Life of Pi is just that: an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Not only does it prove an entirely unfilmable project filmable, it proves to be one of the year’s best movies, and easily one of the best uses of the 3-D medium. Lee is a creative force that cannot be deterred or stopped. Life of Pi is his most splendorous and enchanting film to date, and that’s coming from the guy who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

It only takes a few seconds of this film’s opening, depicting animals grazing in an Indian zoo, to see that a master has something special in store for us. Here’s a 3-D movie so innovative, even the great critic and 3-D naysayer Roger Ebert declared, “I love the use of 3-D in Life of Pi.” Anybody who reads Ebert knows he detests 3-D, so we’re definitely talking about a landmark film achievement when The Ebert comes around.

Lee has cast Suraj Sharma as the teenaged Pi, and Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi, and both deliver performances that center the film.

Khan sets a good, worldly tone as the older Pi being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall) who heard he had a great story to tell. Khan describes, in very matter-of-fact terms, how he came to be the lone survivor of a spectacular shipwreck.

The shipwreck sequence, by itself, is some of the most harrowing and eye-popping footage you will see this or any year. Lee uses 3-D to put you right in the middle of it. As water pounds Pi, you’ll be checking yourself to see if you’re wet.

Pi finds himself in a lifeboat out at sea with members of his family’s zoo that were being transported on the big boat: a frightened zebra, a crazed hyena and, of course, a rather annoyed tiger. Things transpire, and it’s just Pi and the tiger staring each other down, with Pi using a makeshift raft to stay the heck out of the boat. The tiger, as it turns out, is not very good company.

The tiger itself is a mixture of CGI and actual tigers. He’s named Richard Parker for a reason I won’t give away, and there’s never a dull moment when he’s on screen. I especially liked when Richard Parker found himself in the water, and unable to get back on the boat. And let it be said that there are few things sadder than a giant, soaked tiger that’s very hungry.

Those who have not read the book are in for a lot of surprises when watching Life of Pi. Those who have read it are in for some big surprises as well, in that the film does great honor to the bestseller. If you read it thinking “There’s no way anybody can make this into a movie!” you are in for a big shock. It’s a movie, all right, and it’s a great one.