Life of Pi a movie you can believe in
Life of Pi
Three and a half stars (out of 4)
Hollywood labours with special effects to have us believe in monsters, space aliens and fantasy worlds, not always successfully.
With Life of Pi, director Ang Lee has a simpler goal. He wants us to accept as real a computer-generated Bengal tiger by the odd name of Richard Parker. The request is simple; the effect is extraordinary.
Other things may seem in doubt in this delightful, rousing tale of a teen and a tiger on a Pacific Ocean adventure. Based on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Canada’s Yann Martel, the film leaves its options open and hopes that our minds will be, too.
You may or may not leave a viewing of Life of Pi with an enhanced appreciation of mankind’s delicate relationship with animals and nature. Your belief (or disbelief) in an all-powerful deity may be confirmed or quashed. Your definition of “truth” may need revising.
But if you don’t believe in Richard Parker, and the role he plays in making Martel’s story leap from page to screen, then Lee will have failed.
He and his team don’t leave anything to chance. The tiger is a seamless composite of a real animal (a feline named King) and a lot of magic pixels. It’s one of the most marvelous special effects in recent memory, all the more so because Lee insisted the animal not be the least bit cuddly. It is ferocious, as wild animals tend to be.
No less impressive are such wonders as the school of flying fish that zooms past the lifeboat carrying Richard Parker and his human companion Pi (Suraj Sharma). The fish seem to land in our laps thanks to 3D, which for once doesn’t seem like a gimmick.
Claudio Miranda’s luminous camera, set to Mychael Danna’s intoxicating score, captures all manner of wild delights. The film opens with a montage of birds and beasts, from hummingbirds to zebras, leading into a story that links India with Canada.
The montage inspires awe, as does a later scene with meerkats on a remote island. And don’t forget the elemental images: the sleepy fat clouds mirrored on an unbroken sea during days of calm; the raging of wind and water during stormy times.
As splendid as all this nature photography is, it would seem like a National Geographic special without a good story to go along with it. And Martel’s shaggy cat tale finds excellent empathy in the hands of Lee and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland).
The film substitutes Montreal for the book’s Toronto, the place where a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan, serene) is regaling a curious writer (Rafe Spall) with a saga the writer has heard “would make me believe in God.”
Pi explains not only his mathematical name (it’s actually a romantic reference to a French swimming pool) but also his fame: how he came to Canada from India by way of a 227-day ordeal at sea, in the company of a Bengal tiger.
Flashbacks show Pi’s idyllic early days as the child of a zookeeper (Adil Hussain) in Pondicherry, a distinctive place known as “the French part of India.” Young Pi (Ayush Tandon) is more than open to experiences both corporeal and spiritual: he’s dangerously fascinated with the wild animals his father cares for and he embraces all manner of religion.
When his Hindu father expresses dismay about his son’s beliefs, Pi argues that having multiple faiths means “we get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods instead of just one.”
Devotion to any kind of deity is put to the test when the family decides to emigrate to Canada by ship, taking the zoo with it. A terrible storm leaves Pi adrift in a lifeboat, alone except for a few terrified smaller animals (the law of the jungle soon takes hold) and one very large and ferocious tiger.
The angry tabby is the aforementioned Richard Parker, and the life-or-death task of 17-year-old Pi is to learn to share very limited space and resources with the beast.
Much of the film concerns this fraught relationship, and it requires us to believe not only in the realness of Richard Parker but in the mind, heart and soul of Pi, who is beautifully rendered by newcomer Suraj Sharma.
Cautionary words from Pi’s father (“He’s an animal, not a playmate”) blend with his own observations (“My fear of him keeps me alert”) as he negotiates a living arrangement that acts as metaphor for the eternal man/animal divide.
It’s the most remarkable relationship the Taiwanese-born Lee has yet brought to screen, and this from a man who gave us the difficult unions of Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility and Lust, Caution.
Like the book, Life of Pi leaves us puzzling over what we’ve seen and heard. But never for a moment do we doubt the film’s expressive storytelling, imagery and sense of wonder.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.