Historically speaking, for this reviewer Ang Lee’s films provoke a variety of responses. Whilst there’s no disputing that The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain were great films, Lust, Caution and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were mixed affairs, and Hulk was downright awful. With Life of Pi, Lee has created his most accomplished film yet, however, in an adaptation that’s pretty much perfect.
For those who haven’t read Yann Martel’s Booker winning and best selling novel, Life of Pi concerns a young Indian boy who finds himself sharing a life raft with a Bengal tiger, the sole survivors of a devastating shipwreck. There is a lot more to it than that, as both the book and the film are profoundly philosophical and emotional experiences, but when it all boils down to it, this is the hook that will reel the audience in.
I didn’t re-read the book immediately before seeing the film, but I’m certain that I couldn’t imagine a better adaptation of Martel’s work. The novel itself is rather slim, so it can’t have been the hardest thing for screenwriter David Magee to adapt, but I’m happy to report that all of the most important emotional beats from the novel are included here. Of course, the film gets to the life raft quicker than the book does, and some of the religious themed debates have been excised, but I didn’t feel for one moment that the tale had been dumbed down in favour of nothing more than flashy visuals and expensive CGI set pieces.
Here’s the best part about Life of Pi: it’s a perfect combination of big screen spectacle, intimate character development and thought-provoking themes. Many reviewers – this one included – couldn’t help be distracted by the stunning effects on display in the likes of Avatar, even if the story couldn’t compete in terms of quality. Life of Pi is nothing like that. Here is a wondrously visual film that also manages to include top-notch storytelling.
The 3D is striking, but I have no doubt the film will impress even if you’re watching the 2D version. An incredible amount of work must have gone into bringing the tiger to life, so much so that I was frequently unsure if I was looking at a CGI creation or a real life creature. It isn’t flawless – there are moments, particularly those dimly lit, where I was aware I was viewing something made on a computer – but overall this is easily amongst some of the best CGI work I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to tell if, in ten years’ time, I’ll look back and laugh at my naïveté – after all, I thought Jumanji looked great when I first saw it in the cinema at the age of 15 – but it’s really hard to believe that the tiger could have looked any better.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma is the sole performer onscreen for much of the running time, and he effortlessly brings this larger than life tale down to earth in his sincere and heartfelt performance as the titular Pi. The fact that he is an unknown probably helps the film a lot also; if any well-known actors had played the role, it mightn’t have worked quite so well.
At the end of the day, there’s very little to complain about with Life of Pi. It’s an intelligent, challenging and marvellous film that is almost sure to have universal appeal.Rating: