Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was the kind of book which you just couldn’t help but find beguiling. It had the silliest-sounding premise you could think of: a tri-faith (Hindu, Christian and Islam, as it happens) boy who survives a harrowing shipwreck with a Bengal tiger as his only company. But the novel handled Pi’s ordeal at sea with a surprisingly factual approach, and transformed what was at first a little too cloyingly sincere (particularly in the early scenes in India) into an affecting, ruminative experience. It was a delicately balanced work on the pages, the unlikely marriage between an outlandish concept and convincing details, with sprinkles of magical realism that together formed a distinctive, heartfelt voice.
Ang Lee’s adaptation, with screenplay by David Magee (Finding Neverland), is a technical triumph. The Taiwanese director brings to Life of Pi a dozen movies’ worth of memorable imageries. There’s a truly haunting underwater shot of Pi looking on at the ship from which he has just narrowly escaped, the still-functioning lights illuminating many parts of the submerged vessel as it slowly, irretrievably, sinks to its doom. Another shows the lifeboat carrying Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, borne by a calm ocean at night, the stars in the sky mirrored perfectly by the sea so that the boat looks as if it’s floating in the air. The film is full of moments like these, and the visual splendour consistently maintains the imaginative quality throughout. Even better, Lee and the special effects gurus at Rhythm and Hues Studios have done a wondrous job with the tiger. Richard Parker is a hyper-real creation, a movie beast so good he’s better than the real thing, and it’s not often you can say that about a Hollywood CG animal.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its digital excellence, Life of Pi as an emotional event is somewhat unfulfilling. Amid the vivid colours of ocean phenomena and the pastel-tone vistas dwarfing Pi’s lifeboat, what should nevertheless be a desperate struggle for survival is sanitized and doesn’t quite hit home. There are some marvelous supernatural goings-on in Martel’s book (most of which are faithfully replicated in the movie), but what made Life of Pi such a joy to read was that there was also plausibility and urgency to Pi’s toiling efforts, and the hard decisions he is constantly forced to make. It also helped that Pi consistently came through as the most interesting thing in the whole story, a determined, resourceful mini-Crusoe with a particularly disarming voice. It’s to the movie’s misfortune that Suraj Sharma, the debutant actor playing Pi, is significantly overmatched by the environment and the special effects. As a result, his plight feels distant, and the film rarely touches the heart in the way it so elegantly attempts to. It recalled to mind Lee’s disappointing Hulk (2003), another visually striking, emotionless work, although there’s no doubt that Life of Pi is much more entertaining.
There’s a lot of things to enjoy and admire about this film. The seamless marriage of CGI, natural elements and the actor is something to behold, and it’s one of the few 3D movies to really pay off the extra investment in ticket prices. But Lee places greater emphasis on the magical part in ‘magical realism’, and is less equivocal in treating Pi’s story as a fable. This has a reductive effect on the human side of the narrative, and robs the movie of the poignant ambiguity of the novel’s ending. Life of Pi is a feast for the eyes, then, but a lukewarm dish for the soul.
6 / 10