The art of the opening credit sequence is something of a lost one. With the exception of this year’s Bond film or last year’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, you would be hard-pressed to name a recent title sequence that was made with as much care as the nearly four minute opening tour of the Patel family zoo in Ang Lee’s sumptuous Life of Pi. Set to the strains of Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri hypnotic “Pi’s Lullaby,” the camera slowly follows animals both exotic and familiar as they stroll around the grounds. This more than any black, oily Lisbeth Salanders or bloody underwater Bonds sets the tone for the film. Because for all the shipwrecks, CGI’d wonders and snarling tigers, this is a surprisingly quiet and reflective film about human nature and how we (and our faith) can endure even the most harrowing tests.
The action of the film opens up with a conversation in modern-day Canada between an adult Pi Patel (played with warmth and sadness by Irrfhan Khan) and an unnamed author (Rafe Spall, last seen idiotically petting local wildlife in Prometheus) who has sought out Patel in order to hear the story of how Pi survived alone out on the ocean for 227 days. This frame narrative (a slight departure from Yann Martel’s best-selling novel) allows adult Patel to weave the story of his youth in India and subsequent adventure on the Pacific and sets up the action of film as a subjective narrative, an almost fairytale. Those familiar with Martel’s book already know that a good chunk of the plot takes place in India, long before the Patel family sets sail. The story deals with young Pi’s origin, with his naming (Piscine Molitor, after a dreamlike pool in France) and his re-naming (simply Pi, to avoid being teased). That classic hero narrative sets the stage for the epic to come. But what shapes young Pi’s life the most is his spiritual quest. He claims to be Muslim and Hindu and Christian and insatiably curious about and open to the powers that be, whatever their number or name. It’s this faith that is tested out on the open waters by tragedy, by the awesomeness of nature and the endurance of one boy.
This film is, without question, beautifully shot. Ang Lee is an unrivaled master in capturing the beauty of landscape. From the fog soaked hills of England in Sense and Sensibility to the bamboo forests of China in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the spare and lonely crags of Brokeback Mountain, Lee’s sense of place has always been infallible. This film, with its bright, engrossing visuals, has drawn comparisons to James Cameron’s Avatar (though with the gut-wrenching shipwreck at the heart of it, a Titanic comparison might be more apt). But barring one nightmarish dream sequence, Lee’s film, unlike either of Mr. Cameron’s, never loses sight of the human story in favor of spectacle. Shots of the capsizing hull, star-blacking waves or impossibly bioluminescent whales almost always include poor Pi, a small, fragile human somewhere in frame. The vastness of the terrors and wonders only emphasize his struggle and solitude.
Ah, but as the older Pi Patel tells his unnamed author companion, “I wasn’t alone.” The other star of the film is, of course, an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Played by four real-life tigers and often articulated beautifully by CGI, Pi’s companion for 227 days is one of Ang Lee’s biggest coups. In a recent interview with Vulture, Lee mentioned how much he learned from what most consider his biggest failure as a filmmaker, 2003’s Hulk. What’s most evident in Life of Pi, is Lee’s newly subtle and restrained hand when it comes to CGI. (A skill Mr. Cameron has never displayed.) In the tiger Richard Parker we have the first successfully articulated and fully emotive CGI creature to not be played by Andy Serkis. And as the teenaged, shipwrecked Pi Patel, newcomer Suraj Sharma is absolutely marvelous. Does his performance verge once or twice on the melodramatic? Sure. But if you can’t be melodramatic in the face of a snarling tiger, personal tragedy and a raging storm, when can you be? More often, Sharma is warm and funny and subtle, gamely performing against green screens and opposite computer effects with a maturity and depth that belies his inexperience. In an early shot, when comforted by his mother over his heartbreak at leaving India and, more importantly, his young love behind, Sharma’s face silently conveys the deep sadness and sullen stubbornness of a teenager with the perfect, crystalline despair only the young possess.
Young Pi’s plot never falters. The only drag on the film is the somewhat antiseptic feel of the Canada-set frame narrative. I doubt this is the fault of the always excellent Irrfhan Khan, but rather a clunky-ish tendency of the screenwriter, David Magee, who specializes in sweetly watchable but slightly clumsy storytelling (Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day). This somewhat flat effect often infects modern adaptations of best-selling, book-clubbish novels. The Jane Austen Book Club, Water For Elephants and half of Julie and Julia come to mind. The spark of the written word doesn’t, of course, necessarily translate to the screen. In the words of Lee himself in regards to the challenge of this particular film, “It’s an intellectual book, and you have to make it emotional and visual, and without Tom Hanks to help you!” And that’s where Life Of Pi flourishes. When Lee uses every visual tool in his arsenal to tell the story. I won’t go too much into it, for fear of ruining the plot for those four of you who managed to skip this book, but the theme of reflection, of mirrors and doubles, is absolutely essential for unlocking the magic of Pi’s story. If you know that (and just that) going in, then I recommend you take note of how well Lee uses and understands that motif. From the very opening credits. Ang Lee has made an animal story and somehow managed (save one sleepy meerkat) to avoid cutesiness. He tells a story of faith, without proselytizing. He delivers some of the most jaw-dropping visuals of the year without ever once forgetting what makes a movie an enduring classic long after the technology looks quaint. The story. All grown-up in his kitchen in Canada, Pi Patel promises a tale that will make you a believer. And so it goes with Ang Lee.