Crouching Tiger, Heavy Fable

Life of Pi
(USA, 127 min.)
Dir. Ang Lee, Writ. David Magee
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Adil Hussain, Tabu, Gérard Depardieu.
If 2012 does not go down in history as one of the best years for movies, then it will certainly be remembered as a year of ambitious adaptations. Theatres and festivals have already unveiled a score of imaginative page-to-screen renditions such as Anna Karenina and Cloud Atlas among films based novels that were largely thought to have been “unfilmable. Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Yann Martel’s acclaimed Booker Prize winner Life of Pi is another 2012 film whose source I once said could not make a film. The main premise of the book sees a young boy name Pi share a lifeboat with a giant Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. It is one thing to shoot a movie on a lifeboat with Tallulah Bankhead, but it’s a whole other logistical/practical conundrum when the star is a giant carnivorous cat. I speculated that Life of Pi could only ever be adapted as an animated film, with the magical fable of Martel’s prose finding an appropriate visual equivalent in artificial artistic rendering. It seems that director Ang Lee has imaginatively found the best of both worlds, as he uses the latest in visual effects to transport the magical realism of Life of Pi into the real world.

Lee’s Life of Pi is a breathtaking visual spectacle. It’s an enchanting odyssey thanks to how perfectly Lee and his special effects crew, plus skilled DP Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), envision Richard Parker so that the famous tiger of Martel’s story is the imposingly beautiful force that he should be. Lee has come a long way since the special effects extravaganza of 2003’s Hulk and used his artistic flair to deliver another beautiful crouching tiger. The majestic cat is conjured with an extravagant CGI rendering of a real tiger that is superimposed into the boat. Even though Richard Parker is all pixels, he doesn’t look a hint removed from the tiny vessel he shares with Pi (played by Suraj Sharma). The visual effects of Life of Pi are especially good since the motion capture animation exceeds life-like movements and corporeal detail. This cat has a personality.

There are moments in Life of Pi in which an affectionate cat person will be touched by the realism of Richard Parker’s sly and endearing expressions. It’s like watching one’s own little calico swim in the ocean, catch a fish, or eat a hyena. (My cat would probably run from the fish.) Richard Parker, a scene-stealer, is certainly this year’s Uggie.

The creation of Richard Parker, as well as the other animals and visual effects like the astonishing shipwreck, demonstrates how the barrier of the unfilmable novel seems to have been broken by contemporary cinematic wizardry. Ang Lee realizes the sequences aboard the tiny lifeboat with a keen eye for Pi’s playful story, and the score by composer Mychael Danna is sure to accentuate the emotional odyssey on which Lee takes the viewer. Thanks to groundbreaking special effects, a director like Ang Lee can collaborate with a team and visualize the same images with which a novelist can only use words to guide the imagination.

Visual effects aside, though, Life of Pi still struggles to prove that everything novels can do film can do better. Life of Pi ranks somewhere in the middle of the adaptation scale for 2012: it’s hardly Anna Karenina, but it is considerable a better take on the book than On the Road is. Lee’s strengths in bringing life to Pi are consistently undercut by the shortcomings of the adaptation itself. Written by David Magee (Finding Neverland), Life of Pi is a stilted and often heavy-handed cinematic equivalent to Martel’s novel.

The main flaw in the film is the addition of a wholly unnecessary framing device and embedded narrative that sees the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrate his story to an unnamed author (Rafe Spall). It’s a lazy device that lifts Pi’s narration from the novel and uses it as an instructive guide to highlight the themes of the film. Khan is a great narrator, but the present-day scenes overemphasize the Christian allegory of Pi’s Biblical boat trip to Canada. The novel, admittedly, contains the same religious overtones, but Magee’s script makes them the overarching take-home point for Pi’s journey. The embedded narration also mutes the magical realism of the flashback scenes, as Life of Pi cuts from the glorious scenes with Pi and Richard Parker as they cling to life to a static shot/reverse shot between Pi and the author as they hammer in the Biblical Coles Notes.

In spite of the awkward Bridges of Madison County-esque sentimentality of the scenes with the author, Pi’s story aboard the boat is enough to satisfy fans of the novel and moviegoers who haven’t read Martel’s book. Likewise, even though the final dialogue between the adults mutes the playful openness of Pi’s narrative, the stunningly beautiful special effects will leave every viewer wrapped in the magic of storytelling. Cat people or not, moviegoers are sure to feel as transformed by their experience with Richard Parker as Pi was. 

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Life of Pi is currently playing in wide release.