Montreal novelist Yann Martel wrote a novel that garnered a lot of commercial success and critical review. He ended up winning the Man Booker Prize in 2002 for it. Probably since that time many wondered when the novel would be translated into a film and due to the largesse of the story there was also some thought given to how it could become a film. Whoever took on this one would have quite a challenge on their hands due to the nature of the story. When it was finally announced that it would be made into a film I’m sure the fact that it was also announced that Oscar Award winning director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) would be at the helm was greeted with a sigh of relief. If anyone could bring the grandeur and imagination of the story to the screen it could be this talented director.
After seeing Ang Lee’s film I have to say it is a marked success. I was nervous going in because of the story, but he eased all my worries early on. The wonderful sights, colours and sound of film really lend themselves to the story and its fantastical nature.
The story begins in a French section of India called Pondicherry. Piscine Patel (Ayush Tandon – first film) is the son of a man who owns a zoo. He is subject to much teasing at school. His tormentors call him Pi. Due to his family owning a zoo, Pi is used to being close to animals and his relationships with them are an important part of his life.
Another important part of Pi’s life is the fact that due to his diverse neighbourhood he is exposed to many religions like Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. Pi believes in God, but is not sure which religion he will affiliate himself with. So, he decides to take on a little bit of them all much to amusement of his father (Adil Hussain).
For financial reasons the Patel family must move to Canada. They travel by boat with all the animals from their zoo. Pi (Suraj Sharma – first film) is now a teenager and thinks he knows best. As such, during a storm he goes out onto the ship’s deck during a big storm. This turns out to be a lucky decision as he is one of the few survivors when the ship goes down. Pi gets into a lifeboat with a zebra that has been injured, an orangutan, a rat, an agitated hyena and a huge Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As time goes on it is only Pi and the tiger left on the lifeboat. When their time on the ships extends to months this becomes a true test of their survival skills.
Though many film fans tend to criticize the technology that has been brought into the film world that it has taken away the human element of visual storytelling. In this case, though, because Lee is such a deft director all the technology brought to Martel’s story actually contributes. The special effects and cinematography both made me remark with wonder many times over the course of the 120 minutes of the film. Thinking back on it this film would not really have been possible without the technology available today to filmmakers. Hallelujah!
Despite the nontypical story this in not a dull film. It is filled with beautiful visuals that amplify the emotions and intellect of the story. It is really a philosophical investigation of what God is. The strong part of the film (I think) is the fact that no answers about religion or an all-powerful being are offered. Each of us can take from it what we wish. Lee and the screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) have used the most screen worthy sections of the sprawling novel. There are still plenty of dreamlike sequences, but there is still enough meat that you are able to sink your teeth into it.
Lee once again demonstrates himself to be a director with a wide range. He seems to be able to tell any kind of story. He has done a Jane Austen film (Sense and Sensibility). A cowboy story involving a homosexual love story (Brokeback Mountain). A comic book flick (Hulk). Even one about Woodstock. He certainly had plenty of decisions to make while filming, but he does them so well that you don’t feel a heavy presence from the director like you would while watching a Tim Burton or Sophia Coppola film. He maturely and confidently goes about letting the visuals and the story be the focal point of the film.
The danger of a young man and a tiger being on a lifeboat together provides tension, the idea of them surviving with limited resources for a long period provides suspense, and the isolation that provides plenty of time for introspection for Pi all contribute to the framework of what amounts to a largely metaphysical story.
The only letdown of the film is the ending. I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been done better as it is a bit flat.