*NOTE: This review was originally published on CinemaBeach, a website dedicated to reviewing independent and independent-minded movies in the Southern California area. I review movies there every Thursday. Also, not covered in this article is the Oscar chances. I believe that this deserves many awards, including a Best Picture slot and I believe that Suraj Sharma deserves a Best Actor nomination over Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln)
Social commentary has long been a component of great movies. However, commentary on spirituality is one of the least profitable, being reserved for smaller films like Red State and The Way. Religions may be practiced by over five billion people, but the box office receipts rarely reflect them as the big moneymakers. With this in mind, it is an interesting gamble to see director Ang Lee’s $100 million epic Life of Pi centered on a story that is referenced as being so incredible, it will make you believe in god. Is the CGI-heavy adaptation of Yann Martel’s best seller capable of transcending beyond believers, or is it just a beautiful piece of spiritual propaganda?
The story focuses around an elderly Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) as he shares his life story with a curious writer (Rafe Spall). The story evolves from his adolescence (played by Ayush Tandon) where he perused every religion with curiosity to a tale years later in which Pi, the young man (Suraj Sharma), is shipwrecked aboard a raft with a Siberian tiger named Richard Parker. During this time, he builds survival skills and uses prayer to keep him sane. The boat ride is filled with fascinating visual effects, including flying fish, neon whales, and breathtaking storms.
The spectacle alone is enough to see this movie. Ang Lee has proven himself to be an adept filmmaker who manages to find beauty through simplicity. The majority of the film features Pi and Richard Parker floating in the ocean, and it remains the most fascinating aspect of the film. Since neither of them get along, it creates an interesting territorial dynamic that raises a lot of tension and provides plenty of awkward humor. It also works because Richard Parker, who is entirely CGI, appears realistic enough to evoke sympathy and gives the animal personality. Their relationship is crafted so perfectly that it makes the ending bittersweet.
The visual aspect is also amazing. This is most prominent in the scene where the ship that the Patel family is on sinks. The artistry that went into small details turns the tragedy into breathtaking visuals of numerous animals swimming for safety and fighting the currents. Even when Pi and Richard Parker are the only ones on-screen, the cinematography captures a beautiful texture of the sky that reflects on the water in an almost symmetrical form. Add in numerous visuals including glowing sea life and an island full of meerkats and this film paints nature as an ominous wonderland of bliss.
This beauty of the film manages to help the narrative, which is almost too simple. While Pi is developed as a religious individual, the story focuses more on the impact of spirituality. With narration by the older Pi, there is a meditative quality to the story that allows the audience to reflect without being forced to think about worshiping gods or following the bible. The film is effective in not taking a side in any religion, which causes the story’s ending to not come across as preachy.
Suraj Sharma is great in his debut film. The physicality necessary to play this role is some of the best seen this year. His role may be limited to fighting with Richard Parker for half of the film, but there is a sense of insecurity that slowly changes as he turns into an able-bodied seaman. The amount of effort that goes into befriending a CGI tiger manages to hit all of the right emotional beats. The rest of the cast is fine, though mostly used as exposition for Sharma’s scenes. They helped to create an emotional core that is felt more than shown as the movie progresses.
Ang Lee continues to be an impressive director and has done a wonderful job to Yann Martel’s story. Even the adaptation by screenwriter David Magee manages to bring plenty of vivacious energy to the screen. The story may be slow at the beginning, but it is all useful. Most impressively, Lee has created a visually stunning film that may address specific religions, but never seems overbearing about them. He has successfully turned a simple story into a quick paced tale of meditation and the significance of nature and animals. In fact, to say that the tale will make you believe in god is a lie. All this film will do is entertain the audience with a very unique experience.
Life of Pi works on both fronts. As a narrative, the story’s simplicity is its strength. With a great performance by Suraj Sharma, the dialogue and visuals click perfectly. The CGI is so impressive that a fake tiger manages to pack an emotional punch. It manages to address spirituality without turning into clumsy propaganda. This is a rare type of film that only continues to establish Ang Lee as one of the modern virtuosos, capable of taking challenging subject matter and turning it into a respectful yet entertaining experience.