It's that time of year when studios release their Oscar hopefuls, continuing the tradition of saving the best (or what they hope to convince us is the best) for last.
So here's Life of Pi, an adaptation of the seemingly unfilmable novel by Yann Martel about a 14-year-old boy spending more than 200 days at sea on a lifeboat alone—except for a Bengal tiger that totally wants to eat his face.
Many have looked at making the 2001 spiritual novel into a film, and many have just thrown their hands up in the air and said, "Screw this. I'm going to Cabo!"
I've never read the book, but seeing a synopsis of the story had me thinking it would be best to leave this particular fable on the page. It looked like a real bitch to film. Then I read that somebody got director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) on the project. For me, this meant that something amazing could be on the way.
Life of Pi is just that: an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Not only does it prove that an entirely unfilmable project was filmable; it's also one of the year's best movies, and easily one of the best uses of 3-D. Lee is a creative force who cannot be deterred; Life of Pi is his most enchanting film to date, and this is the guy who gave us Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
It only takes a few seconds of this film's opening, depicting animals grazing in an Indian zoo, to see that a master has something special in store. Here's a 3-D movie so innovative that even Roger Ebert declared, "I love the use of 3-D in Life of Pi." Anybody who reads Ebert knows he detests 3-D, so we are definitely talking about a landmark film achievement when The Ebert comes around.
Lee cast Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi, and Irrfan Khan as the adult Pi. Both deliver performances that center the film. In a movie full of so many visual treats and surprises, much of them done with excellent CGI, these two men give the film a beautiful and sincere human element.
Khan sets a good, worldly tone as the older Pi, being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall) who heard from a source that he had a great story to tell. Khan describes in very matter-of-fact terms how he came to be the lone survivor of a spectacular shipwreck.
The shipwreck sequence contains some of the most harrowing and eye-popping footage you will see any year. Lee uses 3-D to put you right in the middle of it. As water pounds Pi, you'll be checking yourself to see if you are wet.
Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with animals from his family's zoo that were being transported on the big boat: a frightened zebra, a crazed hyena and a rather annoyed tiger. Things transpire to where it is just Pi and the tiger staring each other down, with Pi using a makeshift raft to stay the heck out of the boat. The tiger, as it turns out, is not very good company.
The tiger itself is a mixture of CGI and actual tigers. He's named Richard Parker for a reason I won't give away, and there's never a dull moment when he's onscreen. I especially liked it when Richard Parker found himself in the water and unable to get back on the boat. And let it be said that there are few things sadder than a giant, soaked tiger that is very hungry.
Through a series of exciting fishing efforts, Pi manages to feed himself and Richard Parker. They eventually wind up on a mysterious island full of meerkats. The meerkat island is one of those fantastical things you can't believe you are seeing as you are seeing it.
The movie is full of many moments that fit that description: whales breaching the water's surface; magically starry skies reflected on the shimmering sea; zebras flying through the air. Perhaps it's easier just to say that most of the moments in this movie fit that description.
Those who have not read the book are in for a lot of surprises when watching Life of Pi. Those who have read it are in for some big surprises as well, in that the film greatly honors the best-seller. If you read it thinking, "There's no way anybody can make this into a movie!" you are in for a big shock. It's a movie, all right—and it's a great one.