All at sea – ★★½
Taking a beloved book to the screen is always going to be a challenge, and in tackling Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi Ang Lee gave himself his biggest challenge since trying to convince stuffy old academy voters it was socially acceptable to vote for Brokeback Mountain.
Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian man who recalls a period in his teens which saw him supposedly spending 227 days lost at sea with a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi was travelling with his family and the animal inhabitants of their zoo to a new life in Canada when their cargo ship sank, leaving him as one of the sole survivors along with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and the aforementioned Bengal tiger. Over time, the survival of the fittest plays out and Pi and Richard must learn to co-exist.
A truly daft plot one must admit, and yet the book has sold over nine million copies worldwide with countless fans identifying with the book’s spiritual overtones and allegory. Go figure.
Because the story at sea is loosely told through recall rather than solid fact, Ang Lee was granted a lot of freedom with his visual style. As a director never afraid to experiment (consider Hulk’s innovative comic-book panelling way back in 2003, Crouching Tiger‘s bamboo fight or the lingering super long-shots of the Wyoming expanse in Brokeback), it shouldn’t have been surprise to read that he was using 3D cameras to bring the story to life. The move works well, and when added to the work of visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer’s truly unique take on life at sea (read more about that here) it makes for a visually stunning experience. The storm that sinks their boat is thrilling, the tiger jumping at you is terrifying and the stop-off on the meerkat island is simply incredible – job well done boys.
But despite this exemplary work, it’s sad to say that the film still feels like a real drag. This stands to reason with about an hour and a half of it spent at sea. Suraj Sharma is great as Pi Patel (one wonders why pseudo-namesake Dev Patel wasn’t considered for the role) but there are a few times when you begin to tire of seeing him acting opposite a CGI tiger who disappointingly is not voiced by Liam Neeson.
With such stunning visuals and a positive life-affirming message Life of Pi deserves to take on a new life as a thinking man’s stoner-classic like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Sadly the over-long running time and saccharin tone just doesn’t cut it in the cold light of day.
USA, Taiwan / Directed By: Ang Lee / Written By: David Magee / Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain / 127min / Adventure, Drama / Release: 20 December 2012 (UK/Ireland)