Pi of the tiger

That’s a packed lifeboat.

That’s a packed lifeboat.

Rated 5.0

In Life of Pi, director Ang Lee and writer David Magee have produced a brilliant movie in every sense of the word. In the most literal sense—the shimmering, dazzling, ecstatically visual beauty of it—they are aided nearly beyond measure by cinematographer Claudio Miranda and by a visual-effects crew consisting of hundreds of names, which, for the sake of brevity and at the risk of slighting anyone, I’ll group under supervisor Bill Westenhofer. Award predictions are always risky, even foolhardy, but it seems to me that at least two of 2012’s Oscars are now conclusively spoken for. Maybe more.

Best screenplay, for example. Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel is the kind of work that can make an adaptor throw up his hands in despair, and not only for its story of an Indian youth stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger—although God knows that would be daunting enough. But beyond that, the book has a narrative voice, as the young hero recounts his bizarre adventure of survival that is contemplative, almost whimsical, with a wry sense of irony that can make the reader laugh out loud despite the hero’s dire predicament. Martel’s story is so completely at home on the page that it would seem to resist transfer to any other medium.

Yet Magee’s script is a masterful distillation that omits nothing essential, even as it skims swiftly over the hero’s early life in India, sketching his background with deft, broad strokes and an eye for important details. We first meet Pi Patel as a 40-something Canadian immigrant from India (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a visiting writer (Rafe Spall) who has been referred to him by a mutual acquaintance with the intriguing line, “I know someone whose story will make you believe in God.”

Pi tells of his childhood as the son of a Pondicherry zookeeper, learning the ways of animals and the religions of humankind. By the age of 16, Pi is a practicing Hindu, Christian and Muslim, seeing no contradiction in this—isn’t the idea to know God in all his many forms? In these scenes, Pi is played first by Gautam Belur, then Ayush Tandon, and finally, as a teenager, and for most of the movie, by Suraj Sharma in an unforgettable film debut.

Pi’s story really begins when his father decides the family must emigrate to a new life in Canada. The Patels close their zoo, sell some of the animals to finance their passage, and take other animals with them—not to move the zoo, but to sell the animals to zoos in Canada and the United States. The voyage ends in disaster somewhere east of the Philippines when the ship founders in a storm (this scene alone is worth several times the price of admission), and goes down with all hands. All hands, that is, except Pi, who finds himself sharing a lone lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a spotted hyena and a tiger oddly named Richard Parker.

Before long, and in ways best to discover for yourself, it’s just Pi and Richard Parker alone on the wide Pacific Ocean. Pi must use his native wits, his acquired knowledge of the animal kingdom, and the spiritual resources of his multifaceted religious faith to avoid going the way of the other inhabitants of the sunken freighter, and to forge a tenuous coexistence with Richard Parker—who, in his own inscrutably feral way, is just as stressed and desperate as Pi.

Life of Pi is—and I’m choosing my words very carefully here—an astounding movie. Time after time, scene after scene, image after image, you simply will not believe your eyes (in the most positive meaning of the phrase). The movie glides with the supple grace of Richard Parker himself, from Pi’s Robinson Crusoe-on-a-boat adventures to his hallucinations in his fevered, starving loneliness and back to harsh sun-scorched reality.

Yann Martel’s novel evoked Rudyard Kipling’s tales of Mowgli and Shere Khan, and The Story of Little Black Sambo (but without the racial insensitivity), cradling them in a warm blanket of magical realism. Ang Lee’s movie (has there ever been a more adventurous director than Ang Lee?) has all that, just as real and even more magical.

Will this story make you believe in God? Perhaps. In any case, it is a movie that will make you believe in movies.