Director Ang Lee sets his sights on a Booker Prize winning novel dubbed ‘un-filmable’ by many for this latest addition to his highly diverse filmography. But there’s not really any such thing as an un-filmable novel, it just takes a filmmaker good enough to take on the challenge.
As an adult, our protagonist, Pi, recounts his story from his home in Canada to a journalist. He begins, naturally, with his childhood, born in formerly French India, growing up on the zoo which his father ran. It’s a highly amusing prologue in which we learn that Pi’s real name is Piscine – French for swimming pool – and the first real sign of the determination he would need later in life was earned by his efforts to stop his schoolmates calling him ‘pissing’. He is also fascinated by religion, to the unusual extent that he tries to adhere to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam simultaneously, not seeing any conflict between them. This puts him at some odds with his much more rational father, and leads to a critical scene in which Pi tries to befriend the zoo’s newest addition, a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, and his father feels the need to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget; that the tiger is a wild animal, not his friend.
After the zoo goes bankrupt Pi’s father decides to take the family to Canada, crossing the ocean on a Japanese cargo ship with some of the zoo animals to sell. From here the film switches from being an entertaining family comedy-drama to full blown disaster film. The ship hits a storm and Pi, excited by this, heads outside to see the rain, this ultimately results in him being the only survivor as the ship goes down with the storm. It’s a sequence both spectacular and horrifying, aided by some incredible camera work, undoubtedly one of the set pieces of the year, with the shot of Pi underwater watching the boat go down being particularly haunting.
As the storm dies down, a shattered Pi is the sole human on a lifeboat with a small number of the zoo’s animals, as is the way of nature, soon only one animal remains; the tiger Richard Parker.
The bulk of the film charts the journey of Pi’s survival at sea, with only a large carnivore for company. And what an adventure it is, Lee crafts some majestically beautiful photography of one man with nature, aided by flawless CGI. Richard Parker himself is a triumph, never once feeling like a computer creation, CGI wild animals have certainly come a very long way since ‘Jumanji’. Likewise Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi gives a wonderful performance, particularly considering he is the sole character on screen. Initially, Pi seems foolhardy in his attempts to care for the tiger, rather than just trying to get rid of it, but it becomes apparent that the tiger is giving him purpose, as well as keeping him alert and occupied.
As beautiful and thrilling a journey it is, ‘Life of Pi’ is not without issues. While Irrfan Khan does great work as the adult Pi, the framing device of him talking to the writer is not necessary to tell the story in question, and the occasional moments when we cut back to him are quite jarring. Plus of course it means that Pi’s intact survival is never in doubt. Also Pi repeatedly refers to his story as one that will ‘make you believe in God’, it certainly doesn’t do that. Indeed Pi continues to praise and thank God out at sea, without ever questioning why this God decided to kill his entire family.
But then…..THEN….in its final 10 or so minutes, ’Life of Pi’ gives us one of the most infuriating endings I can ever recall seeing. It’s not a twist ending exactly, but it’s one that affects practically everything that has come before. It’s one that can leave the audience feeling cheated and betrayed.
An ambitious and stunningly filmed odyssey of survival, completely undermined by its frustrating conclusion.