LIFE OF PI is an almost entirely unbelievable story that provides a great deal of solace and inspiration for so many who have been fortunate enough to read it. Its scope is so vastly epic, essentially biblical in nature. For years, Yann Martel’s 2001 Booker Prize winner had been called unfilmable. Directors, from M. Night Shaymalan to Alfonso Cuaron, came and went without finding a successful way to translate the incredible story of a boy trapped at sea with a bengal tiger to the screen. Enter Academy Award winning director, Ang Lee, the man with the sensitivity and vision necessary to make LIFE OF PI into the inconceivable spectacle it needs to be in order to meet its goal – proving the existence of God.
From the moment Lee sets the scene, the Pondicherry Zoo, in India, where Piscine “Pi” Patel (newcomer, Suraj Sharma, chosen by Lee from over 3,000 auditions) grew up with his family, the language of the film is light and lyrical. The animals in this zoo move with grace and a sense of purpose and Lee follows suit as though he is truly letting the nature of this wondrous tale unfold in front of us. The story is being told by a present day Pi, played by Irfan Kahn, who plays this elder incarnation like a man enlightened by all that life has shown him. Khan is telling his story to an author (Rafe Spall, in a role that was originally Tobey Maguire’s), presumably based on Martel. His narration, which is heavy at first but eventually gives way for the action itself, lends a much needed resonance to the sometimes implausible chain of events.
Pi’s family decides one day to pack up everything they own, including the great wealth of animals in their collection, and move from Pondicherry to Winnipeg. The promise of a better life is put to the ultimate test for Pi, when the freighter inexplicably sinks in the midst of a storm just a few days after leaving port. Pi is the only survivor, well, human survivor anyway, which is not at all surprising when you see how immense his escape from the sinking ship is. This is the other reason I’m happy they waited so long to make this movie. Lee’s usage of 3D is exemplary in LIFE OF PI. Not only does it make for a dazzling visual feast, but it highlights the distance the character feels from his lost family, from land, from God.
While some directors would get lost at sea for this long in a movie, Lee comes alive. His ocean, one that could be very static if not tended carefully, is a constantly changing symphony of movements that are both terrifying and mesmerizing. And to move back and forth between the never ending ocean and the confined space of the rescue boat so seamlessly, is a true testament to what mastery Lee commands and his deep understanding of the audience. A story that is supposed to make you believe in God has to be immense to accomplish such a lofty goal. What Pi endures on that boat with his feline shipmate, Richard Parker, should not be believed, but yet to read it on the page, is to behold an extraordinary tale of strength and spirit. The fact that Lee has so triumphantly captured both the bewilderment and inquisitive insight of the book is itself enough to make me a believer. Only God could craft something so moving through the hands of one of His children.
When I first saw LIFE OF PI, I was extremely nervous about how it would turn out. I knew that if anyone could bring this spectacle to life properly, it could be Ang Lee, but I was still skeptical. In fact, I made a point to read Yann Martel’s novel for a second time before seeing the film because I was that afraid that its spirituality would not translate to film. I breathed a great sigh of relief within moments of the opening credit sequence though. It was clear from the tone Lee had already struck that he understood what made Martel’s novel so magical. This is of course echoed by Lee’s recent and second Academy Award win for Best Director. I will never doubt the man ever again.
I saw LIFE OF PI twice in theatres. Both times, I was blown away by what I saw. It is an incredibly emotional experience. On the one hand, it is one of the most visually impressive feats ever filmed, enhanced for the viewer with breathtaking 3D, filmed by Oscar winning cinematographer, Claudio Miranda. On the other hand, it is really a quite intimate and personal film about one boy’s journey through seemingly impossible circumstances, shared with the most unlikely of companions, a Bengal tiger. Even though I loved the film, I was concerned that some of its mystery would be lost when watched at home. I knew the intimacy and connection would still be there; in fact, I expected it to be enhanced. My worry was that without that extra dimension, that the film would fall short of the grandness it needs to be successful. Once again, I needn’t have been worried. Lee and Miranda, along with the remarkable visual effects team, have crafted a brilliant work of art that wows not only when it roars but when it purrs as well.
What I said then: “The fact that Lee has so triumphantly captured both the bewilderment and inquisitive insight of the book is in itself enough to make me a believer. Only God could craft something so moving through the hands of one of His children.”
And now? Clearly I still believe this. Subsequent viewings of LIFE OF PI have only deepened my appreciation for this very special film. And when you watch the behind the scenes features on this Blu-ray release, the respect and admiration I already had for the crew behind this film, is equally deepened. LIFE OF PI was a four-year endeavour for many people involved in the project. Each and every aspect of how this film came together is explained, from editing and cinematography to score recording and casting. And of course, a great deal of time is focused on the visual effects of the film, including the recreation of Richard Parker himself. Having worked with a professional tiger trainer to get every detail just right, the final result shows a seamless transition between the real tiger, a 70-year old, 450-pound specimen by the name of King, and the digital creation that is Richard Parker.
There are actually 23 real tiger shots in the film. Why not make a game of it and see if you can spot them? (wink.)
Ang Lee is one of my absolute favourite directors working in cinema today. By taking on LIFE OF PI, he volunteered to put himself metaphorically into that lifeboat lost at sea with a tiger for a shipmate for four long years. Having successfully come out the other side of his journey, you know from his interviews that he is a better person for having done it, and you know from watching the film that it has also made him a better filmmaker.