If nothing else, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winner Life Of Pi is easily the most visually sumptuous slab of eye candy I’ve seen in years – if you’re looking for something colourful and vivid to rest on your eyes on during this particularly drab and rainy festive season it knocks the hairy feet and orc-infested fields and tunnels of Middle Earth into a cocked bucket of muddy rainwater. With its saturated colours, bold and imaginative flights of fancy, gorgeous water effects and extraordinarily well rendered digital animals it reminds me more than anything of Disney’s Fantasia, from 1940, which is still pretty much my yardstick of wow when it comes to sheer cinematic wonder. I didn’t even feel fleeced by watching it in 3D – this, like Scorsese’s Hugo from last year, would seem to be one of the rare films that uses the technology as a way of deepening its themes rather than just a gimmick.
Whether there’s actually anything of substance underneath all the technical brilliance is a different question, though from what I remember the film is very faithful to the book so any gripes about the underlying meaning of it all should presumably be directed towards Martel rather than Lee. Like the book, Life Of Pi falls into an unbalanced three act structure, with a framing device of a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall, who’s come on miles in terms of sophistication since the days of Shaun Of The Dead) visiting Pi (Irrfan Khan), a middle-aged Indian man, in order to hear his story of how he was the sole survivor of a shipwreck years earlier. The first act concerns itself with Pi’s childhood as the son of a zoo manager in Pondicherry, and while it’s engaging enough with its depictions of quirky episodes and anecdotes from a serious-minded boy’s youth it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on what comes next, a few musings about the relative virtues of faith and scientific rigour aside. The second, and by far the longest, act is where the film really starts, with the family’s ill-fated freighter voyage to Canada to start a new life, complete with a zoo-load of animals. A mighty storm sinks the ship (and the realisation of this on screen is simply tremendous), but the teenage Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) manages to scramble onto a lifeboat, only to find himself in the company of a fearsome Bengal tiger. Pi has no illusions as to the danger the animal represents, but eventually comes to the realisation that keeping it alive will help motivate him to keep himself alive too, and his ingenious strategies to ensure both survival and mutual accommodation form the main drama of the film. These sequences are compelling, sometimes desperate, sometimes funny, sometimes heightened and fantastical, and just wouldn’t have been possible to achieve a few years ago – the tiger, I’m guessing, is a wholly digital creation but it’s totally convincing, and importantly, it remains a wild animal throughout, with any human characteristics it displays being merely projections of Pi’s need for companionship.
The adventure eventually ends and we’re into a short and not entirely satisfying final act, in which doubt is cast on the veracity of Pi’s story. This seems to be there to highlight the power and value of the imagination but has the effect of muddying the water and devaluing the experience the boy (and us, the audience) has been through. Again, I think it’s true to the book, but it feels sour and anti-climactic, and straining for a significance that something this vibrant and myth-like doesn’t really need. Nevertheless, this is still a marvel of a film and it may have a profound emotional effect on you, particularly if you have a close relationship with any of the felines in your house.