Like Pi Patel, the brave young protagonist of Yann Martel’s Booker prize-winning novel Life of Pi, Ang Lee attempted what was thought to be impossible when he decided to bring this beloved story to the big screen. Long referred to by directors as being “unfilmable,” Lee, who is best known for his stunning cinematography and dramatic storytelling in Oscar award-winning films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, not only filmed Life of Pi, but turned it into a masterpiece of cinema. Already the winner of “Best Original Score” at the Golden Globe Awards, and nominated for nine BAFTAs and 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, this story of survival and spirituality is one you should be rooting for during the Oscars this weekend.
Life of Pi is a story-within-a-story, as an adult Pi tells of his extraordinary life to a curious writer, telling him—and the audience—that his is “a story that will make you believe in God.” Pi, who grew up as a zookeeper’s son, not only developed a connection with the powers of the natural world, but also experimented with various versions of spirituality, eventually creating a religion for himself that became an amalgamation of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. All of his faith becomes tested, however, when the ship transporting his family and their zoo animals from their native India to a new life in Canada sinks into the cold and dangerous Pacific. The sole human survivor, Pi is left floating on a lifeboat over the Mariana Trench with no one for company but an injured zebra, a female orangutan, a vicious hyena, and a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Facing starvation, brutal storms, shark-filled waters, and a man-eating companion, Pi must find the strength and faith to survive.
As a longtime fan of the 2001 novel, I’ll admit I was skeptical, even despite the film’s early critical acclaim. Yet, Ang Lee brings this epic story to such brilliantly colorful life, that it seems as though it was always meant to be a visual experience. The digital effects, especially those that create the animals, are truly astounding; while watching the film, I was convinced that the actors worked with real, trained animals until I read otherwise. And not even the nature cinematography of Planet Earth or Blue Planet can match the almost hallucinatory visual feast of oceanic beauty that flows though this film, as flashing schools of fish hypnotize and iridescent humpback whales breach ethereally across the screen. As nighttime scenes are illuminated by the glow of thousands of billowing jellyfish, a new world comes to life, which, through its fantasy, reveals the truly magical nature of the world that exists beneath our seas. The cinematics of Life of Pi are something rarely experienced in a fictional film, and the computer-generated imagery is nothing short of groundbreaking.
At times I was disappointed that the realities of an individual battling storms, starvation, and dehydration at sea seemed far less visceral than their descriptions in the novel, and it seemed as if making whales and dolphins literally sparkle and shimmer somehow diminished the story’s darkest moments of the struggle for human survival. Yet I realized that Life of Pi, one of the most unique stories ever told, isn’t about human suffering; it’s about human perseverance, and the strength that can be found in trusting in the unknown, and exploring the power of human imagination. The novel is a work of magic realism, and, in animating it, Lee has managed to take this literary genre, which can easily slip into the absurd, and bring it to life in all of its prosaic beauty. Lee and his brilliant actors—particularly newcomer Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel) and veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, The Namesake) who portrays the adult Pi—manage to translate a relationship between a boy and a non-verbal tiger, the wonders of the human mind, and the internal human struggle for faith into a truly captivating cinematic experience.
But what really makes Life of Pi so intriguing is its mind-bending twist ending, which is captured on film in a way that maintains the thematic drama of the novel. By the conclusion, we are not only left entranced by the sensory experience that is watching this film; we are also asked to question the reality of the world around us, wondering about God, the power of storytelling, and the struggle of the human condition. Life of Pi is a story that requires the suspension of disbelief, yet it asks us to both believe in, and question, that which we can’t understand.