It’s going to be fascinating to watch what part of Life of Pi might wind up irritating viewers most: its decidedly Unitarian-Universalist religious leanings, or its distinctive mix of survival drama with a fantastical visual style.
Director Ang Lee certainly sticks close to the source in his adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel, which opens with a struggling writer (Rafe Spall) listening to the strange story of a man named Pi (Irrfan Khan). As a teenager, it seems, Pi (Suraj Sharma) was traveling with his zookeeper father and the rest of his family from India to Canada when the ship sank in a raging storm. Pi was left on a lifeboat with a few surviving zoo animals, adding a tiger named Richard Parker to the list of threats to Pi’s survival including starvation and thirst.
From the early scenes of Pi’s life in India through his ordeal at sea, Lee serves up some of the most breathtaking compositions you’ll see at the movies this year. A shot from beneath a swimmer in a clear pool conveys the sense that he’s swimming through the sky; Pi’s nighttime contemplation turns into a swirling mass of creatures and images coalescing into a vision of the universe itself. A luminescent island populated by thousands of CGI meerkats may feel like it’s pushing the story into the realm of the absurd, but it’s all still remarkable to behold.
More challenging for audiences might be the way Life of Pi turns its title character’s journey into an exploration of the nature of faith, and the importance of what faith gives to us. The answers Martel came up with may prove vexing, and the film’s framing story isn’t as successful at building to those climactic philosophical questions. It sells the notion of embracing that which is beautiful—and that’s the level on which Ang Lee makes it work.
LIFE OF PI
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall