Ang Lee’s latest, Life of Pi, signals its visual strengths from its very first frame. Using state-of-art 3D technology, the credit sequence is a delightful montage of the flora and fauna surrounding Piscine “Pi” Patel, the young Indian hero of the story, which is based on the prize-winning novel by Yann Martel. The setting is Pondicherry, a former French colony in South India, where Pi’s father manages a zoo in the city’s botanical garden. Even when you feel sometimes that the visuals are a little too self-consciously framed, Life of Pi has a memorable shimmering beauty. However, when it comes to the framing narrative, in which the adult Pi (Hindi movie star Irfan Khan) relates his incredible story to the stand-in for Martel, the movie stumbles. But for the most part the sheer sweep of the spectacle carries the day.
The young Pi’s idyllic life in the zoo is rudely disrupted when his father decides to emigrate. The family, with all their zoo animals in tow, are bound for Canada when a storm hits and the ship is wrecked. Pi is the only human survivor—along with a zebra, an ape, a hyena, and a magnificent Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Eventually it’s just Pi and the tiger out at sea in a lifeboat. Lee’s command of the visuals and the technology help meet the inherent challenge of adapting Martel’s novel, in which the protagonist spends most of this tale of survival stuck in the middle of the ocean. Credit goes to newcomer 17-year-old Suraj Sharma for holding his own alongside the splendid, digitally created Richard Parker, and the dazzling scenic effects. While not much actually happens during Pi’s nearly 19-month ordeal at sea, the tense relationship between boy and beast is vividly portrayed. As Pi narrates, “You can’t tell daydreams from reality,” we’re treated to an array of dazzling visuals: schools of flying fish, the ravages of a stormy sea, a mysterious and deadly floating island.
The tale, we’re told at the start of the movie, is going to be “a story that will make you believe in God.” Whether this is true or not will be the viewer’s choice. The spiritual inspiration to be drawn from Martel’s tale, which is set up as a test of faith, is rather inelegantly delivered to the audience in the concluding portion of the movie which follows the novel much too literally. It would have been nice if Lee and scriptwriter David Magee had found a more imaginative and cinematic way to end their movie. Faithful to the book’s epilogue, Lee has Pi relate the alternate explanation for the engrossing yarn we have just witnessed in a static scene, delivered from a hospital bed. It’s a chunk of exposition and comes with the moral of fable spelled out. After nearly two hours of visual creativity it’s a wordy let down.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.