Ang Lee’s Life of Pi: Storm and Fang, Water and Wonder

This adaptation of the award-winning novel about a boy and a tiger marks the greatest advance in 3-D technology since 'Avatar'

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Peter Sorel/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

An Indian boy and a Bengal tiger: a tale familiar to children a century ago from Rudyard Kipling’s story of Mowgli and Shere Khan in Jungle Book and, with more unfortunate racial stereotyping, in Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo. Call the boy Pi and the Bengal tiger Richard Parker, trap them on a small lifeboat in unchartered Pacific waters, set up a boy-vs.-beast battle for territory and survival, and you have the essence of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002. No question, it’s a (literally) ripping yarn, full of desperation, heroism and a certain spectral awe. But the story poses unusual challenges to the director of a live-action movie.

Ang Lee has often bucked long odds in his films. The Taiwan-born American director mastered the nuances of 19th-century English manners in Sense and Sensibility, set martial-artist adversaries to dancing on tree tops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and sold the mainstream audience on the love story of two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. This time, Lee sets out to astound the viewer with the hitherto untapped properties of 3-D. Pi builds on the triumphant innovations in James Cameron’s Avatar, and the advances in motion-capture technology evident in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to create a tactile, spectacular world of wonder.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Avatar)

A techno-brat like Robert Zemeckis might have been attracted to this tale of the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma), the only human survivor of a shipwreck that took the lives of his family, stranded on an immense ocean in a confined space with a wild creature who could kill him with one swipe of a paw. Zemeckis has used motion-capture for children’s fables (The Polar Express) and Dark Age dramas (Beowulf), and in his last live-action film, Cast Away, put Tom Hanks through an ordeal of desert-island isolation.

But Lee, in a quieter way, is just as headstrong a pioneer. To tell him that a film project is impossible is just a way of getting him interested in it. Having come to the University of Illinois for college, and settling in New York City, Lee plunged himself into an alien culture for a series of social comedies about good manners (Sense and Sensibility), gay manners (The Wedding Banquet), awkward manners (The Ice Storm) and no manners at all (Taking Woodstock). Plus two Westerns (Ride with the DevilBrokeback Mountain), a Chinese-language exercise in erotics (Lust, Caution) and a Marvel comics movie (the lumbering Hulk).

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain)

Making a film about a teenager who is Noah, Robinson Crusoe and Siegfried (without Roy), and who encounters all manner of sea life, plus an orangutan, a hyena and about a million meerkats, and whose mortal enemy and sole companion is an adult tiger, had a uniquely high degree of difficulty. A decade ago, a Life of Pi movie could not have been imagined, let alone realized — unless Lee had employed a severely sedated tiger, or summoned an endless supply of lookalike actors to play Pi and replace the ones whom a more energetic beast would have clawed or devoured. Now, thanks to advances in technique and a new generation of artist-tinkerers, it can be done.

Life of Pi, from a script by David Magee, isn’t all storm-and-fang; it has recognizable Ang Lee elements. The tensions in a loving family, familiar from Sense and Sensibility, are reprised here in the relationship of young Pi (played at age 12 by Ayush Tandon) to his father (Adil Hussain), who owns a zoo in the Indian city of Pondicherry, and mother (Indian indie icon Tabu). The prickly love stories at the heart of The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution get a more tender, tentative play in the friendship of young Pi and a girl (Shravanthi Sainath) he meets at a dance class.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)

When Pi’s father is obliged to sell the Pondicherry zoo, he books his family and the animals on a Japanese cargo ship headed for Canada; the storm that sinks the ship, kills his parents and disperses the creatures — another amazing sequence — launches Pi on cross-Pacific journey that lasts seven months. That trek has its analog in Lee’s own itinerary, which has taken him from Taiwan to the U.S. to Britain and finally back to his homeland, where he built a huge tank for the sea scenes. Pi’s quest, which tests his spirit no less than his resolve, will lead him through three religions and a climactic enlightenment — all of which the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) describes to a skeptical Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). Those present-day scenes are the movie’s only sign of clumsiness, though Khan, so impressive as the displaced widower Sunil in season three of In Treatment, tells the tale with a poised poignance. (Spall replaced Tobey Maguire, who had starred in The Ice Storm and Ride With the Devil, when the director decided that rapport was lacking.)

To prepare for this daunting endeavor — a no-star production whose budget crept toward $100 million — Lee created a 70-minute “pre-viz” of the movie’s central section on the life raft (we can’t wait to see it as an extra on the Life of Pi DVD), then led a team of visual-effects artists to bring the tiger to vivid life on the boat. On the set, of course, there was no tiger, just as, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there were no apes, just digital sorcery. Yet the creature is as mean, majestic and as palpable as the one painted by Henri Rousseau in Tiger in a Tropical Storm (Surprised!) — a title that applies equally here.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution)

The difference is that, in Life of Pi, it’s the audience that’s likely to be slack-jawed. On Lee’s Pacific, the surface is a shimmering mirror; it reflects the sky so clearly that Pi seems to be both underwater and above the clouds. At times Lee follows the hallucinations of the malnourished boy — as in an underwater montage, where fish form a mosaic of his faraway girlfriend’s face. The cinematography of Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has the pellucid immediacy of a fever dream. Instead of the ecstatic soaring of the cross-species lovers in Avatar, this dream or nightmare is taking place in the remotest part of what we call Earth. We see dire and divine events unfold through Pi’s troubled spirit and, at times, through the eye of the tiger.

(READ: How Rise of the Planet of the Apes revolutionized the action movie)

To compare Life of Pi with Avatar is not to suggest that the Lee movie will challenge the Cameron for all-time box office supremacy. But Pi is a poem of emotional immediacy — and a giant leap forward, outward and upward in expanding the resources of the evolving medium of movies. Magical realism was rarely so magical and never before so real.