Oscar Winner for Best Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, and Visual Effects.
Yann Martel’s “unfilmable” 2001 novel just needed a decade for the technology to catch up in order for animators to evoke the animals and fantastical situation of a boy surviving an epic journey in a lifeboat with a wild Bengal tiger after his family drown in a terrible ship sinking.
While this is a spiritual tale that leaves the boy’s journey open to one’s own preference for realism or a belief in a higher power, Life of Pi doesn’t sermonize nor present one right view because its central character lives in his own peculiar world – Pi is a fusionist, believing in Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths – and he’s misunderstood by his family, friends, and schoolmates. Martel’s introductory scenes which establish Pi’s rather privileged life (his father owns an intricately populated zoo) have a deliberately surreal and sometimes absurd tenor which keeps the overall narrative planted in a grey zone where audiences are never quite certain what they’re watching is a fanciful tale, a delusion, an exaggeration, or an event so fantastic that it can only be accepted as some kind of modern myth.
Once the family have decided to move from the former French Indian colony of Pondicherry to Canada via an ocean voyage, the dramatic gears really kick in, with the ship’s sinking functioning as a defining event where Pi (beautifully played by Suraj Sharma) has to use his physical, mental and spiritual wits to survive on the ocean. It is indeed his effort to co-exist with the tiger – absurdly named Richard Parker – that keeps Pi alive, and the film’s midsection consists of a gripping series of adventures where reality is nudged and sometimes turned upside-down by God-storms and strange encounters before the finale offers some closure to Pi’s story.
Martel’s tale is divided into a prologue (Pi’s intro and backstory), a midsection (the journey), and a wrap-up (the summation), plus periodic present day scenes where a writer (a figurative Martel) is told the story by an adult Pi (played by Irfan Khan), now living in Montreal. These brief scenes don’t contextualize Pi’s boyhood events; they tend to force viewers to make quick assessments of what they think is occurring before the story takes another small leap ahead. The ocean journey also evokes a bit of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, since the battle between man and beast takes up most of the narrative, and we also see the effects of time and the natural elements on both characters.
Perhaps the most startling aspect to Life of Pi is that it works on various levels: it’s a fantasy tale, a spiritual journey, a parable, an adventure saga, and an absurdist tale with a finale that offers viewers the author’s explanations which can either be accepted or rejected without affecting one’s enjoyment of the story because the characters are so well defined. Martel's story and David Magee's excellent script also present South Asians free from the usual Hollywood cliches; both Pi's family and Pi could be of any ethnic background, and the spiritualism isn't rooted in any specific faith.
Ang Lee’s direction is wholly assured, and he seemed to know how far to push the cinematic elements without going too far into realism or fantasy. The ship’s sinking, for example, is horrific because the camera tends to favour Pi’s reaction as he watches his world literally drown in a matter of minutes; and the emotional stream that runs through the film is affecting because of the near-perfect contributions from a cast of human and animated characters (the tiger is fantastic), visuals, and sound design.
Mychael Danna’s score moves from a slightly saccharine purity in the opening credits to a series of distilled and impressionistic materials which help viewers stick with the story as the spiritual elements deepen. His thematic material captures the heart of the story and characters, and probably helped temper the 3D cinematography, and the odd times objects poked and leaped towards audiences.
Fox has released Pi in an essentially bare bones DVD edition with a singular (but informative) making-of featurette, a Blu-ray edition, and a combo-edition with a 3D BR version. The DVD transfer is very clean, and the lengthy featurette primarily covers the visual effects which collectively took almost 2 years to complete. Lee also points out a section in the film where the image was matted to 2.35:1 to enhance a particular 3D sequence. (A second moment in the film has a single shot in 1.33:1, presumably to have a central image hover deep into the audience’s lap.)
Prior film adaptations of Martell’s stories include the short film Manners of Dyring (2004) and the TV movie We Ate the Children Last (2011).
Also available: an interview with Rob Simonsen, Mychael Danna’s collaborator, and composer of additional music within Life of Pi.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan