If you can imagine a 1950s live-action Disney “true life adventure” decked out in the resplendence of modern F/X technology and given a false dose of profundity by the addition of subtexts about religious belief and literary theory, you’ll have some idea of what “Life of Pi” is like. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s book is beautiful to look at, but suffers from a serious case of philosophical overreach.
The tale is told in flashback by Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), a genial, even-tempted expatriate living in Montreal, to a quizzical writer (Rafe Spall) who’d been heard of him from his uncle back in India. As a boy (played at 5 and 11 by Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon), Pi grows up with a loving family. His father Santosh (Adil Hussein), who owns a zoo, is a rationalist and disproves of his son’s fascination with religion—an obsession that leads the tyke to embrace Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam simultaneously. But the boy persists, supported by his kindly mother Gita (Tabu).
Eventually Santosh decides to sell the zoo and move the family—along with most of the animals—to Canada by ship. In the course of the voyage, however, they run into a terrible storm, and in the ensuing disaster most of the crew, passengers and animals are lost at sea. Pi (now a teen played by Sunaj Sharma) escapes on a lifeboat, which also become a refuge for several animals—a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena—as well as its dominant occupant, a Bengal tiger. The other critters disappear rather quickly—in scenes that some viewers may well find a mite disturbing. But the boy and the tiger remain together for more than two hundred days until they reach land—though their relationship is hardly one of fuzzy friendship. For Pi it’s more a matter of avoiding being eaten, though the two do gradually develop a wary tolerance of each other.
Much of the running-time of “Life if Pi” is devoted to the seagoing material, and visually it’s pretty extraordinary. The shipwreck sequence is impressive, all swirling waves and carcasses, and the lengthiest section—the boy’s struggle to survive both the elements and his hungry boat-mate—is technically impressive, though, as in John Sturges’ 1958 film of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” there’s inevitably some repetitiveness. But Lee compensates by employing a variety of impressionistic visual strategies that lead to some truly remarkable moments, reminiscent of those that Charles Laughton used during the children’s river trip in “The Night of the Hunter.” A stopover at a very strange island populated by thousands meerkats affords not so much a breather as another opportunity for striking imagery. Lee also injects welcome doses of humor into the film, especially in the initial section’s quirky treatment of Pi’s school days (with charming explanations of how he got his name and the trouble it caused him) and his not always easy introductions to various religions, accompanied by some sardonic comments by Khan.
But the director is tripped up by the attempt to invest the story with deeper meaning. That’s evident in the treatment of the religious subtext, which gets quite a workout in the first reel and is never far from the surface elsewhere; it gives the film the feel of an earnest faith-based parable. And then there’s the thread about the nature of storytelling. It’s introduced in the first section and alluded to throughout in Pi’s conversations with the writer, but comes on like gangbusters in the final act, when Patel reports that after his rescue, investigators pressured him to come up with something more plausible than his tiger tale. He presented them, he explains, with an alternative in which the various animals represented human beings who traveled part of the way with him—particularly the odious, bigoted ship’s cook (Gerard Depardieu)—and gave them the opportunity to opt for it instead. The device is intended to point to the levels of reality and artifice that permeate the story, of course, but it comes across as uncomfortably reminiscent of the famous conclusion Agatha Christie crafted for “Murder on the Orient Express,” when Hercule Poirot offers the head of the railway a similar choice about who committed the crime. It was rather more clever in her hands.
The truth versus fiction theme is reflected in the filmmaking itself, of course, which melds live-action footage and special effects with amazing result. Scenes between Pi and the tiger—accomplished largely through CGI—are especially effective, but all the material involving the animals is remarkable, and cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the effects team work wonders in sequences involving flying fish, luminescent schools of fish turning the sea a bright nighttime blue with their light, and a passing whale (not to mention that weird island and its hordes of inhabitants). Lee and his crew—production designer David Gropman, art directors Dan Webster, Al Hobbs and James F. Truesdale—have worked some true wonders on the visual side, giving the images a touch of real magic. And although the human performances are for the most part a distinctly secondary element, the picture wouldn’t work at all without the committed, and obviously demanding performance of Sharma, who calls to mind the physical dexterity of Sabu.
“Life of Pi” is certainly a rare cinematic bird—an act of visual extravagance with something—too much, in fact—on its mind. In that the recent picture it most resembles is “Cloud Atlas,” and though it achieves what it’s striving for more than that film did, it still ends up feeling like something to be admired more for its ambition than its accomplishment.