Life of Pi | Movie review
A young man and a tiger brave the wild blue sea in Ang Lee’s adaptation.
Brokeback Mountain director Ang Lee is sometimes derided as a middlebrow filmmaker, but it takes courage to tackle a property as widely beloved as Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s 2001 spiritual parable. The burden of expectation is enormous—nearly as great, perhaps, as the one faced by Irrfan Khan’s eponymous storyteller at the start of this lavish adaptation. Expecting a tale that will make him “believe in God,” a Canadian author (Rafe Spall, in one of those thankless audience-surrogate roles) pays a visit to Piscine “Pi” Patel, who regales his guest with an epic account of how he became stranded at sea with a ferocious Bengal tiger. This story of faith and perseverance begins unassumingly; the son of Indian zookeepers, our hero (played as a young man by newcomer Suraj Sharma) dips his toe into the waters of first romance and polytheism.
Warm-and-fuzzy has never been Lee’s forte, which may explain why the early coming-of-age scenes fall so flat. The film finds its footing, though, in the second act, as Pi—the lone survivor of a spectacular maritime storm—ends up marooned in a lifeboat, battling starvation, the elements and a hungry, territorial carnivore. Working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, Lee turns this ordeal into a visually stunning man-versus-nature odyssey. As in Cast Away, much of the fascination derives from procedural details, with mundane tasks like rationing food afforded as much attention as the awe-inspiring appearance of a CGI whale. Most admirably, Life of Pi resists turning its remarkably realistic, digitally created feline into a friend or pet.
So gripping is this trial by water that it’s disappointing to see the film retreat to dry land. Yet as useless as the framing device initially seems, it’s instrumental to the movie’s halfway-provocative stance on religious storytelling. Life of Pi may not make you believe in God, but it could restore some of your faith in Hollywood prestige filmmaking.