Ang Lee’s dreamlike film The Life of Pi tells the story of a young Indian boy, who finds himself stranded on a raft with only a hungry Bengal Tiger to keep him company and the lengths he goes to survive and keep the tiger at bay.
It is in the telling of this story that one finds the best achievement of this film. Other reviewers appear to have gone overboard with lavish praise of the special effects, but the actual narrative and the way it is presented is captivating and masterfully achieved. In the hands of others this film might have boiled down to a shaggy dog (or tiger!) story but Lee uses the right mix of humour, action sequences and storytelling, keeping the audience captivated, emotionally attached and never delving to far into the realms style over substance- something that 3d pictures have tended to do so far.
The film is divided into three parts; the first, fun but slightly too long, explains Pi’s early years and sets the scene for what is to come. We learn from the narration of the adult Pi, talking to an author looking to clear his writer’s block, that his father owned a zoo in India which he decides to transport to Canada to sell, using the funds to resettle his family there. One of the inhabitants of the zoo that we have already been introduced to (and witnessed the ferocity of, courtesy of a poor, wobbly goat) is the fully grown Benghal Tiger called Richard Parker. The second part begins after the steamer he is travelling on sinks. Pi finds himself sharing his dingy with Richard Parker and a selection of other animals that are all polished off rather quickly, leaving him to play cat and mouse with Richard Parker. The ways in which Pi learns to live with Richard Parker and find food for both of them are touching and funny but one does get the sense that they are occasionally slightly strained in Lee’s search for profundity. The third section of the film ties up the conversation and adds a closure to the film as well as providing a nice little twist to the tale.
Suraj Sharma, who plays the younger Pi, makes an impressive film debut. Image courtesy of Bollywood Hungama
Throughout the film the compositions that Lee uses are wonderful, he takes the ocean and uses it like a blank canvas; the special effects are also impressive during the action sequences, but sometimes the 3d seems at odds with the CGI; when there is a lot happening on the screen the film started to look like a computer game. The CGI showcase of the film was undoubtedly meant to be the Tiger, but in some scenes the resemblance was a little too close to The Jungle Book.
I don’t mind admitting that I am sceptical of CGI. For me there is no real wonder or awe in an image that was generated by a computer. It used to be fun to guess and be impressed with man-made special effects, they had a “how did they do that?” factor to them. The use of CGI, for me, removes the human touch and artistic ability that should be cherished in cinema. That is not to say that it was not visually impressive: the 3d in the underwater scenes were excellent, giving the viewer a sense of depth and perspective not normally found.
The Life of Pi is a very enjoyable cinematic experience, with dazzling digital images and, if you can ignore the slightly silly search for greater meaning, an enjoyable, well told story that is never too challenging. It is showing at Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch, details are available here.
By Lee Greatorex