Life of Pi delivers a powerful cinematic adventure

With Life of Pi, director Ang Lee took on a considerable challenge.  The practical issues presented by Yann Martel’s 2001 award winning novel become glaringly obvious from the premise that places a young man adrift at sea in a lifeboat shared with a Bengal tiger.  Yet another important question Lee may have been faced with was, how to reach an increasingly God-less public with this strikingly spiritual tale.  The 2011 English and Welsh census has recently revealed a 10% increase in those who consider themselves to be of no religion compared to 2001′s numbers.  Luckily, Lee and screenwriter David Magee have risen to the occasion by, not only taming the logistical beasts of such a production, but also by ensuring Life of Pi is able to resonate with believers and sceptics alike.

Lee’s Life of Pi takes place in the form of an adult Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recounting his most unique life-story to Rafe Spall’s nameless novelist; one that would, according to rumour, “make me believe in God”, but not before an array of exotic animals take to the screen during the opening credits. They provide a stunning introduction to the kind of gorgeous aesthetics Lee and director of photography Claudio Miranda have in store for the audience.  The delightful origin of Pi’s name makes for a warm welcome to his world, which again allows for several dazzling scenes, including excellent underwater imagery.  The meat of the plot comes when the Patel family’s Canada-bound ship goes down amidst a terrible storm.  Included in the ship’s cargo is a large collection of zoo animals.  Having managed to escape on a lifeboat, which happens to also contain a severely injured zebra, Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma) finds himself lost at sea.  However, it is soon revealed that they are not alone on the canvas covered boat and before long, survival of the fittest leaves Pi in a test of wills with Richard Parker, a fierce, hungry Bengal tiger.  The journey and how it unfolds is inspiring, but intentionally unbelievable, as Martel’s story serves as a contemplative allegory for belief, whatever form that belief might take.

Spending the vast majority of his screen time limited by the implications of being shipwrecked on a small boat, Sharma carries the viewer, as if literally on his own back, through this absorbing adventure.  Acting almost exclusively opposite CG creations, Sharma’s performance may not be equal to Tom Hanks’ relationship with Wilson, the volleyball in Cast Away, but it’s awfully close.  As captivating as the visuals are, they would be rendered meaningless without Sharma’s ability to sell the connection Pi forges with the ravenous creature throughout the course of events.  The efforts of the visual effects teams prove just as valuable as Sharma’s, given the reliance on technology necessary to bring Pi’s story to life on-screen.  There are moments where the movements of the animals feel slightly unnatural or look just a tad off, but on the whole, it’s frequently difficult to believe that Sharma wasn’t sharing that boat with a real tiger.

Sticking with the topic of technology, it’s worth noting how essential the 3D is to the success Life of Pi achieves in bring the audience into this world of faith and survival.  The lush environs are given texture and depth that creates a rewardingly encompassing experience.  The sound design is positively epic at times, with the thunderous sea storm sounding especially massive (while cinemas with Dolby ATMOS are rare for the time being, it’s well worth seeing Life of Pi in a screen that offers this tremendously overwhelming sound system).

If there’s any real complaint to be had with Life of Pi, it may be the pacing.  The first act, while pivotal and often amusing, seems to coast along without making much effort to draw the audience in, choosing instead to rely instead on how beautiful it looks.  While adequate time is spent on Pi’s oceanic adventure, there’s a twist at the close of it that is presented in a rather rushed fashion.  As this point supplies the crux of the story, a little more time spent revealing and savouring it would have been ideal.

Life of Pi is nothing, if not a genuine cinematic achievement for Lee.  To say that what the director has produced here is impressive would be a gross understatement.  Both visually spectacular and intelligently moving, Life of Pi provides a unique, thought-provoking cinematic experience that is both magical and relatable at once.  It’s a film that demands the theatrical experience, yet offers plenty to reflect upon over in the days that follow.  Regardless of one’s spiritual persuasion, Life of Pi makes a statement worth considering in the form of a film that should not be missed.  9/10

Life of Pi is in UK cinemas 20 December

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