I have a feeling that “Life of Pi’s” success as a novel—it sold 7 million copies and won the Man Booked Prize—lay in its ability to be all things to all people. Readers projected their own interpretations on the story of a boy set adrift in a small boat with only a tiger for a companion. Some saw a touching coming-of-age story, others an adventure tale, while other saw it as a spiritual allegory à la Saint Bette of Midler’s “God is watching us… From a distance,” scripture.
The movie, from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” director Ang Lee, brings all those themes to vivid life in a film that adheres to the book but is completely cinematic.
Based on Yann Martel’s popular 2001 novel, Suraj Sharma stars as Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a sixteen year-old boy orphaned literally set adrift after the freighter his family was taking from India to a new life in Canada, sinks. He escapes in a lifeboat with a several wild animals, refugees from Pi’s family zoo–an orangutan, hyena, a wounded zebra and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Using ingenuity, plus his instincts for survival and spirituality, he keeps the tiger tame until his destiny becomes clear.
“Life of Pi” is a risky movie that doesn’t take many big chances. Bringing this metaphorical and introspective story to the screen was a challenging and risky venture in itself, but in its execution Lee leans on old-fashioned storytelling. Two thirds of the movie involves man and beast, alone at sea and while there is considerable use of computer generated images–the computer generated tiger is completely believable, and beautifully done—the focus is always kept on the Pi’s journey from inquisitive kid to self-reliant survivor.
It’s during this long section that Lee’s hand is most evident, particularly in a few tense moments when the main character and the tiger try to forge an uneasy truce. The unusual story is complimented by many startlingly beautiful images, like a full moon illuminating a sea brimming with jellyfish, turning them into incandescent underwater lanterns or an island overflowing with meerkats.
The segments that book end the film, however, are less successful. The set-up involves a writer (Rafe Spall) discussing the wild story with a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan). It’s an old-hat way of providing context, and while Khan’s performance is terrific, the exposition that drives these scenes is of the “so what happened next” variety.
Like the main character “Life of Pi” drifts off course from time to time, but despite some ill advised magic realism and some repetition, Lee steers the story into safe, comforting waters.