Posted by Ian Mantgani on 17th January, 2013
After missing out on the phenomenon that was Jan Martell’s 2002 Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi, I’m grateful to to be here for Ang Lee’s movie version, in large part for it inspiring a thought I haven’t had at the movies in too long: “How the hell did they do that?” By all accounts the book was heavier on overt and specific philosophical and religious rumination, but the film is a dazzling and uplifting visual experience with its own touch of something close to profundity.
Pi is named for the Parisian swimming pool Piscine Molitor rather than the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, though he’s the kind of keen mind who’d know about both. For most of the movie he’s shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a tiger for company, the older Pi relating the story in a newly written flashback framing device. The listener, a journalist character standing in for Martell, has heard that the man’s story will “make me believe in God.”
As Pi’s family perishes in a cargo ship disaster along with the zoo full of animals they were transporting from India, as he learns to survive with limited rations, as he learns to avoid death from and show care for his predatory animal companion, and as he sees performances of luminous fish and navigates an island full of curious meerkats and carnivorous plants, we get a sense of both the desperate and the fantastical. It doesn’t seem to add up to much until the final explanation, which is about the coping strategies of the imagination, but even before Life of Pi has convinced us it’s going to succeed in making its philosophical point, it is dense with enough character and visual wonder to keep us entertained.
Before the shipwreck there is relative playfulness and peace, shown in shots of lush detail. Pi grows up in a comfortable existence in Ponticherry, “the French Riviera of India,” learning from his family and his flits around religions the lessons he would later need to apply. After the shipwreck Life of Pi becomes a combination of tense daily struggles with nature and the tiger, and hallucinatory, otherworldly adventures thrown up by the ocean.
The CGI and its imaginative interplay with live action is some of the most accomplished to date. The tiger, though mostly created digitally by effects company Rhythm & Hues (Babe), has such natural texture, movement and expressiveness that it never once rings fake – in fact, only one shot of the film has notably unconvincing motion, when a CG zebra takes a tumble during the shipwreck. The film’s 3D is used with the most amount of showmanship in one particular pivotal shot of the tiger, but even in cheap diorama moments it’s quite thrilling – bright enough to make up for the usual light loss from 3D glasses, at the service of a big enough spectacle to justify it. One of Lee’s most playful touches is changing the aspect ratio in a few sequences – in one, involving a school of flying fish, the screen goes from 1.85:1 ratio to full cinemascope, and we can see fish flopping over the negative space of the black letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the screen.
Life of Pi has several qualities that will make it very popular indeed. It’s confident and free in its use of digital and 3D aesthetics, it has a real sense of journey, and it has an attitude towards life and spirituality. After it was over, I felt I’d lived inside it and was better off for the time I spent there.