Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel
Ayush Tandon as Young Pi
Irrfan Khan as Older Pi
Tabu as Pi’s Mother
Adil Hussain as Pi’s Father
Shravanthi Sainath as Pi’s Girlfriend
Vibish Sivakumar as Ravi Patel
Rafe Spall as The Writer
Gérard Depardieu as Frenchman
Directed by Ang Lee
A young Indian lad named Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is left stranded at sea with a live Bengal tiger named Richard Parker when the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm. Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive.
Everybody (including us) has been talking lately about what it took to adapt David Mitchell’s upcoming “Cloud Atlas,” but a novel that sold literally millions more copies and has taken even longer to get to the big screen is Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi,” a novel that uses the survival of a young boy at sea, stranded in a life boat with a Bengal tiger, to explore faith and spirituality. Personally, I never got around to reading the novel, so this isn’t going to be the review that talks about how Ang Lee compares to Martel’s book, but rather the review that talks about how Lee’s movie makes it immediately apparent why the book was so popular.
After an extended title sequence over various zoo animals, we’re introduced to the older Pi Patel, played by Irrfan Khan, who has been approached by an author (Rafe Spall) to tell his inspiring tale. This framing device starts simply with Khan telling stories of his young life in India, from how he got his name and how he was raised Hindu but his curiosity about other religions led to him exploring Catholicism and Islam. These stories range from the humorous to the poignant, but what they do is establish the character of Pi and his background leading up to his harrowing adventure at sea.
It’s almost an hour before we get to the dramatic 2nd act that involves the shipwreck of the vessel carrying Pi, his family and their entire zoo of animals who are traveling to North America. The wreck leaves Pi stranded at sea in a lifeboat with no one to keep him company except for the carnivorous tiger named “Richard Parker.” This is essentially the rest of the movie, Pi stranded at sea, trying to survive and coexist with a tiger.
Clearly, it took a filmmaking genius with the experience of Ang Lee to bring this story to life and make it work, and the film is up there with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain” among his greatest achievements as a filmmaker. Already creating an amazing scope as the film tells the simpler stories of the younger Pi, a hugely impressive setpiece involving the shipwreck leaves you in a place where you find yourself watching the voyage of a young man and a tiger for an hour and being absolutely captivated.
The cinematography and visual FX are stunning, combined in a fluid way to bring the all-encompassing ocean and its various inhabitants to life in a way that has you staring at the screen wide-eyed at the different ways water can be used. The fact Lee decided to make the movie in 3D, which immediately provokes a lot closer to scrutiny to every detail, is a testament to the care that went into creating every single sequence.
That’s not to say that the FX or visuals ever overpower the minimal human cast. Suraj Sharma is an amazing young actor who is able to carry the majority of the film with a performance full of humor and heartfelt emotion, and Irfan Khan gives an astounding performance that goes well beyond being just the narrator. (His role is similar to that of Vanessa Redgrave in Joe Wright’s “Atonement,” used to act as the film’s emotional anchor to pull everything we’ve seen together.)
While this is Pi’s story, most will be equally awed by his furry co-star Richard Parker, a majestic beast that’s so well done you can barely tell when they’re using CG to enhance the real living tigers. Even going into the movie realizing Pi isn’t going to be mauled to death by a tiger, its presence still adds a lot of tension never knowing when he’s going to jump out at the camera. In fact, that big scary tiger may be only thing that should keep the movie from receiving a PG rating and being deemed kid-friendly, while at the same time making it obvious how possible a live action version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” could be.
If you haven’t read the book, we won’t spoil the significance of Pi’s story or how things come together, but those who are cynical about faith, religion and the existence of God aren’t likely to have their minds changed by the movie even as it successfully bolster’s other’s faiths by creating a universal spirituality that doesn’t care if you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or other. Even setting the religious aspects of the movie aside, it’s an absolutely beautiful story and a stunning cinematic experience that isn’t easy to forget.
The Bottom Line:
Mixing high seas adventure, humor and spirituality into a glorious and joyous package, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is a near-perfect film, one of the must-experience films of the year and destined to be a classic.
Ang Lee’s Life of Pi premieres tonight as the Opening Night Gala of the 50th New York Film Festival and opens theatrically on November 21.