Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is the closest example to classic adventure escapism to be found in theaters today. The beautiful imagery, story, and the structure of presentation all work together to form an experience that resembles a lucid dream.
It shouldn't be hard to imagine why the film, which was adapted by David Magee from Yann Martel's acclaimed 2001 novel of the same name, would be presented in such as fantastic way. It would be hard to imagine a better presentation of the source material. Apparently Fox thought so, too.
Various directors have been attached to the project since the book's optioning back in 2002. They settled on the unpredictable Ang Lee who has jumped genre with nearly every film release, from 2000's gorgeous martial arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," 2003's terrible comic book adaptation "Hulk," to 2005's at-the-time controversial "Brokeback Mountain."
This story, which was told to a writer looking for a story that could make him believe in God, follows the life of Pi Patel from his beginnings in India, which was shot on location, to his adult years.
As a boy his full name, Piscine Molitor Patel - which was given to him because of the real life swimming pool his "honorary uncle" loves most in the world - caused bullying because when said aloud it makes for obvious toilet humor. He passed this first worldly trial by shortening his name to Pi, identifying with- and became a school legend because of - the mathematical symbol that is infinite in its decimal value.
Soon Pi learns of Christianity after being dared to rush into a church and drink its holy water. He asks questions and becomes passionate and devout in a way only a curious child could be. He later finds Islam and becomes equally enamored, though he maintains his Christian faith, the Hindu faith his mother raised him with, and the secular reasoning bestowed on him by his father. His father had lost his own faith as a boy when he came to the
Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee;
(out of five stars)
realization that Eastern religion did not save him from polio, but Western medicine did, instead.
It's the contradictions of his childhood that created a child who wants "to love God" through every viewpoint available. Defending himself against the ribbing his family gives him - which in at least one scene made the audience erupt in laughter - to the disillusionment he goes through in adolescence after learning some of the harsher life lessons, Pi seems only to grow in his beliefs.
It isn't just spirituality that prepares Pi for what comes next, but also falling in love, and extensive and good reading. The reading materials, such as Jules Verne's "10,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and various novels by Camus in the original French (he did grow up in French India, after all) in childhood, and Dostoyevsky in his teen years.
It is after his own shipwreck, en route to Canada, that the real story begins, and the greatest test of his faiths and endurance will be found. His companion is a male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The name is an in-joke on the part of writer Yann Martel, who took the name both from a real shipwreck that had tragic outcomes for its survivors, and also from a novel by Edgar Allen Poe, 1838's "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," that foreshadowed the actual shipwreck and featured a character of the same name. Poe's novel also influenced many of the writers Pi reads early in the film.
Tribulations on the boat with Richard Parker make for some very funny, laugh-out-loud moments, but also some set-pieces that are truly some of the most beautiful in recent film memory. It takes a powerful actor to carry the vast majority of the film on his own shoulders alone, and Lee really lucked out with finding Suraj Sharma for this first role. Rumor has it that Sharma hadn't even auditioned for the role but was picked up while accompanying his brother to the audition.
The movie truly is carried by Sharma. The film is bookended by the beginning of an interview between the writer and an older Pi (as well as Pi's backstory) and the conclusion of the interview. The bookends to the film are masterful filmmaking on their own, but it is the middle section and the meat of the story that would appear to be unfilmable: a young man stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger. This is where Lee makes his skills known.
Except for one moment in the film, which takes place after Pi asks Richard Parker what he sees one night on the boat, the fantasy and reality of being shipwrecked with no human company is enthralling. The aforementioned moment is really the only point when Lee may have been too heavy-handed with the illusory and fantasy elements of the spiritual awakening taking place under the threat of imminent death.
To say any more may take the charm away from a first viewing, but I saw it twice and enjoyed it both times. If the audience I watched it with is any indication, this film will make you laugh and will also remind of classic adventure stories.
The film is available in both 3D and traditional presentations. 3D has always suffered from darkness issues, but it is more apparent in the delicate and precise lighting used in certain sections of this film. Still, 3D is recommended because, although it is still a beautiful experience either way, the 3D is used exceptionally well and contributes to the lucid dream quality of the story.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)