Ang Lee’s ambitious new film is a dazzling emotional epic, writes Donald Clarke
Towards the beginning of Ang Lee’s gorgeous, faintly psychedelic adventure yarn, the titular protagonist promises (or, possibly, warns) his amanuensis that the tale he is about to tell will make the budding writer “believe in God”. Secularists will find their hackles rising ever so slightly. We come to the cinema to get away from God. Don’t we?
As it happens, the film – like Yann Martel’s 2001 source novel – hedges its bets in this area.
Young Pi, raised in the former French section of India, receives, as a child, some sage advice from his sensible father. Aware that the boy is dabbling in every passing religion, the older man, a rationalist, argues that, if Pi must attach himself to supernatural belief systems, he’d be better advised to pick one and stick with it.
The film does not follow dad’s suggestions. Life of Pi looks to accommodate all those people who, though not at home to organised religion, feel they are in some sense “spiritual” (whatever that might mean). The “mind body and spirit” section of BookWorld is full of them.
Anyway, that slightly grumpy gripe out of the way, it must be acknowledged that Life of Pi is an intoxicating delight from sweet start to poignant close. Early trailers suggested that we might be facing up to this year’s The Lovely Bones. The morass of computergenerated imagery looked daunting. But, once again, Lee proves himself an excellent storyteller with a unique gift for conveying emotional catharsis through the suppressed whimper. Pi’s final revelation is every bit as moving as Heath Ledger’s climactic lines in Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. Before then, there’s an awful lot of magical realism to be got through.
Played equally brilliantly by three actors – the cheeky Suraj Sharma, the fearless Ayush Tandon and the profound Irrfan Khan – Pi grows up in and about his father’s implausibly spotless zoo. When financial ruin strikes, the family boards a freighter with their animals and makes for the New World.
Some distance into the Pacific, a storm hits and Pi is set adrift with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker. Not surprisingly, some beasts eat others and Pi ends up alone in the lifeboat with hungry Richard.
Early on in the story, Pi learns to avoid making anthropomorphic assumptions about animals in general and about Richard Parker in particular. For the most part, Lee and his computer-animation boffins stay true to this philosophy. The tiger remains fierce, unmoved and self-concerned. But it proves hard not to develop a sentimental affection for the beast.
Returning to heavy-duty computer animation for the first time since the problematic Hulk, Lee has elected to layer the film with a mind-altering school of superrealism. The tiger and the other animals are impressively rendered, but you couldn’t say they look exactly like the real things. The depictions of luminescent maritime life and of an island thronging with meerkats tend towards gorgeous prog-rock fantasy.
This is all to a sensible purpose. Somewhere between sheer fantasy and an unreliable version of reality, Pi’s fantastic tale (told by Khan to an underemployed Rafe Spall) never entirely meshes with the world in which we live. Lee’s hugely imaginative use of 3D, which finds objects apparently exiting the frame, adds to the sense of creative dislocation. (Indeed, this is the only film since Martin Scorsese’s Hugo to have justified the use of that maligned medium).
For all the digital flash, however, Life of Pi is chiefly to be recommended for the punch of its core story. Never mind the cod-philosophical breadth – feel the impressive emotional depth.
Tripping the light fantastic: Ayush Tandon adrift in Life of Pi