The Review: Sometimes in life you have to put aside trivial matters and get to grips with the weightier questions of the universe. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Is there a God, or possibly Gods? And will 3D ever become a successful film making tool or forever remain a cheap gimmick? Well, the latter may not be weighing heavily on your mind, but trust me, it’s given me a few sleepless nights. You can count the number of truly successful directors in the medium on the fingers of one hand: Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Michael Bay (and that in itself is a depressing notion), but now you can add Ang Lee to that list. Impressively, that’s not the only question on the list he’s attempted to tackle in this gorgeous and reasonably faithful adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel.
Many familiar with the novel thought it unfilmable and it had a strange structure for certain, divided broadly into two halves. Pi (played at middle age by Irfan Khan) sits down to tell a story to a writer looking for a story to tell (Rafe Spall), which starts at his childhood in India and details his adolescence and the key role his parents come to play in his development. It’s that development that then upsets the balance of Pi’s life, as the family zoo is being relocated to Canada for financial reasons, so the family and their menagerie is loaded to a cargo ship. The second half deals with the aftermath of a wild storm which sinks the ship and leaves Pi (played here by Suraj Sharma) afloat with a handful of animals, most notably an untamed tiger with the unlikely name of Richard Parker, and Pi is left to fight for his survival in more ways than one.
It’s the combination of unlikely characters, setting and material that would seem to make this a difficult film to adapt. First then to the film’s look: it’s simply stunning. The vivid colours and bold framing capture your attention from the first moment and never look like relinquishing it, but it’s the use of 3D that truly stands out. Not only does Lee understand the technical demands that a third dimension places, with constant use of fades and slow pans to keep everything in focus, but he also has fun with the toolkit, even throwing in aspect ratio shifts here and there to maximise the potential of the format, and rather than the normal 2D-plus-occasionally-poking-things-in-your-face, this truly feels like a film thought of, framed in and shot for three dimensions. More than that, Lee even uses that third dimension both to increase tension and as a narrative tool on occasion; if there’s been a more effective 3D movie in the modern era, I’ve yet to see it. The techniques used to bring the animals to life are for the most part flawless, with CG and real animals virtually indistinguishable. The soundtrack by Michael Dynna is also worth a mention, serving as an excellent backdrop for the varied emotional states the film seeks to evoke.
But no point in looking gorgeous if there’s nothing going on between your ears, and here Life Of Pi also doesn’t disappoint. It’s not to say that it’s the most sophisticated story ever told, coming over as park bench philosophising at times (a visual metaphor that the film plays out in an attempt to inject movement into its more talkative aspects). That occasional heavy-handedness is felt throughout, particularly in the last fifteen minutes – which comes perilously close to grating – but this is very much of the mythological, exploring the nature of storytelling itself through the fable that Pi takes us through but also prompting us to ask questions about what belief means and examining the possibilities of existence. It’s a tricky balancing act to maintain between story and visual and Lee manages it through never letting the story itself get too bogged down, especially tricky when you have so few characters – and even less of them with speaking parts – for such a large chunk of the running time. As well as that slight heavy storytelling hand, Life isn’t quite as profound as it thinks it is, or would like to be, its storytelling dissection being just that and falling short of the treatise on religion it initially claims. That’s balanced by a refreshing lack of sentimentality as Richard Parker’s sea-based buffet unfolds in the second half, which extends throughout most of the story.
In terms of those characters, Life Of Pi represents another step forward, as the seamless blend of green screen, CGI and other more practical techniques have reached a point where a recreation of a living creature can interact seamlessly and never be anything less than utterly convincing. That also has to stack up against a living actor, and Suraj Sharma gives a powerful portrayal of the more youthful Pi, easily matching the ferocity of his feline foe but also getting to the root of Pi’s own inner turmoil. I’m prepared to forgive pretty much every one of those flaws mentioned earlier, for what Ang Lee has crafted is very much a modern cinematic treat, a feast for the eyes that is at the cutting edge of its medium with just enough nourishment for the mind as well. It may not change your thoughts on God or the nature of existence, but it might just capture a few 3D skeptics and fans of old fashioned storytelling.
Why see it at the cinema: Whether you watch in two or three dimensions, Life Of Pi is a work of art, both visually and aurally and as with so many art works, should be seen on a suitably sized canvas.
Why see it in 3D: But if you’re still undecided on whether 3D can bring anything to the cinema experience, you should be trying this with the glasses on.
The Score: 10/10