Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Ayush Tandon, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu
Running time: 126 minutes
It is spoiling nothing to disclose that Pi Patel, the younger son of an Indian zoo owner, survives a terrible shipwreck during a storm in the Pacific Ocean. That much you know from the very first scenes of Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s 3D film adaptation of the wildly popular, arguably readable novel by Yann Martel. A middle-aged Pi (the reliably engaging Irrfan Khan) tells the tale of his earlier life to a wide-eyed Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall), so we know that he made it through whatever ordeal we are about to witness.
Whether a viewer’s good will can survive until the shipwreck is another matter. The older Pi introduces us to his younger self (played as a boy by Ayush Tandon and as a teenager by Suraj Sharma), whose life is so besotted by wonder that those in the audience who do not share his slack-jawed piety might think that something is wrong with him, or themselves.
Named Piscine Molitor after his uncle’s favourite Parisian swimming pool — he adopts the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet as a nickname to avoid schoolyard teasing — Pi grows up in Pondicherry, a serene and picturesque city in south India. His childhood unfolds in this colourful setting, beautifully filmed by Claudio Miranda, inflected with a hint of exoticism by Mychael Danna’s score and graced with the presence of a handful of excellent Indian actors, notably Adil Hussain and Tabu as Pi’s parents.
Young Pi’s existence — and also that of the gentle, professorial man he will grow into — is dominated by religion. Pi’s story, the Canadian writer is told, “will make you believe in God”, and Pi himself is infused with a godliness that knows no doctrinal limits. The Hindu deities “were like superheroes to me”, he recalls, and at a tender age he began collecting heroes from other faiths, an all-around holiness fan reluctant to declare a rooting interest in any particular team. He likes them all. After receiving a quick precis of the Gospels from a kindly priest, Pi offers up a prayer that summarises his amiable, inclusive approach to the notoriously divisive subject of theology: “Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ.”
No problem! He will go on to embrace Islam and study Kabbalah. Thousands of years of sectarian conflict, it seems, can be resolved with a smile and a hushed, reverent tone of voice.
“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” warns Pi’s dad, who is committed to the supremacy of reason and who is, as rationalists often are in the imaginations of the devout, a bit of a grouch about it. But this piece of sceptical paternal wisdom identifies a serious flaw in Life of Pi, which embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed. Instead of awe, it gives us “awww, how sweet”.
Until the Bengal tiger shows up, and thank the divinity of your choice for that. Or, rather, thank Lee and the gods of digital imagery, who conjure up a beast — named Richard Parker, for mildly amusing reasons — of almost miraculous vividness. His eyes, his fur, the rippling of his muscles and the skeleton beneath his skin, all of it is so perfectly rendered that you will swear that Richard Parker is real. What is and isn’t real — what stories can be believed and why — turns out to be an important theme of Life of Pi, albeit one that is explored with the same glibness that characterises the film’s pursuit of spiritual questions. But Lee and his screenwriter, David Magee, have the good sense to put all of that aside for a while and focus on the young man, the tiger and the deep blue sea.
Sharma is a gangly, likeable presence, with an emotional expressiveness that makes him good company, and sufficient humility to not mind being upstaged by a computer-generated kitty. Tales of lonely survival have a durable, almost primal appeal, and the middle section of Life of Pi confidently clears a space for itself alongside Robinson Crusoe and Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away. Part of the appeal of these stories is their intense preoccupation with practical matters, and the problems Pi must solve form the dramatic heart of the film. How will he secure food and clean water? How will he stay sane and hopeful? How will he avoid turning into Richard Parker’s dinner?
These questions are answered with equal measures of wit and wonder, and with only occasional moments of god-bothering. Unlike just about every other cartoon animal you can think of, Richard Parker, despite his name, is never anthropomorphised, never pulled out of his essentially predatory nature. The relationship that develops between him and Pi is therefore a complicated one, involving fear and competition as well as (on Pi’s end, at least) compassion and love.
It unfolds in a setting that is one of the great achievements of digital cinema, and a reminder that the eclectic Lee is, among other things, an exuberant and inventive visual artist. There are images in Life of Pi that are so beautiful, so surprising, so right that I hesitate to describe them. Suffice it to say that the simple, elemental facts of sky, sea and animal life are captured with sweetness and sublimity.
The problem, as I have suggested, is that the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible..... Insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that Life of Pi does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion. The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvellous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes — or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all.