I have to be upfront with you all, my loyal readership, and say that I haven’t actually read the incredibly popular Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel. Life of Pi was one of those novels that everyone initially considered unfilmable until Ang Lee only went and bloody filmed it. Who would have thought it would be possible for an award winning director to produce the beloved story of a teenage boy getting into trouble on a journey from India to Canada and drifting for 227 days with only an adult Bengal tiger for company? Attempting to achieve the impossible is becoming a major theme in Hollywood lately with major adaptations of, to name but a few, On The Road, Midnight’s Children and Cloud Atlas. The road to Life of Pi hasn’t been easy with one big name after another stepping into the spotlight and back out again (namely M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet). Then in strolls Ang Lee to rise to the challenge aided by his dreamy visuals and incredibly life-like computer generated tiger. Lee is not new to the world of literary adaptations with critically acclaimed versions of Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain as evidence of his suitability. And whilst I can’t comment myself, I’m reliably informed that Lee didn’t move too far away from Martel’s novel, which ought to keep any Pi-hards out there pretty happy.
Cinema lovers are also bound to be satisfied as Life of Pi is a triumph of modern cinema. Lee has offered his audience a luscious masterpiece that never fails to deliver one breath-taking visual after another. Lee embraces the magical elements of Martel’s story and creates some truly artistic moments. The scenes that take place as the teenage Pi is floating on a vast ocean are moments of unadulterated beauty. There are scenes where the sea becomes mirror-like and we watch Pi and his chum floating in mid-air. These moments are simply too spectacular for words (even though they are a bit of a reminder of the disappointing The Lovely Bones). Lee and cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, create a totally wondrous landscape that is, at the same time, breathtakingly realistic. Their use of colour and light tell us that none of this should be happening but it is impossible not to become totally immersed. Without a doubt, Lee’s film is one of the most technically brilliant films that we have seen in a long time and is, quite probably, the most visually outstanding films of 2012.
However, and I must be upfront about this, I didn’t really see much beyond that. I’ve read countless 5* reviews of this film and have seen it referred to as “the best film of 2012” and I’m just left a little bewildered. Just as I felt after seeing Avatar and The Artist (one of which I disliked the other I loved immensely), it all felt a little like art for art’s sake. A film that ended up being more about the technical brilliance on show than it was about telling an engaging and meaningful story. Having not read the book, I was excited by the idea of a young man being tested mentally, physically and spiritually in a very odd situation. Then we come to the issue of the framing narrative. This turned a story that had a great deal of potential into nothing more than a shaggy dog story. From what I’ve read, the book deals with the ‘twist’ ending with more ambiguity than Lee’s film seems to but here it is pretty clear what we are supposed to believe. In a brief moment, the magical realism that Lee and his crew worked so hard to create becomes meaningless. Still beautiful but meaningless in narrative terms. The story of Pi and his tiger had a great deal of potential and the themes of human strength, survival, and personal belief are uplifting but, without any opportunity to mirror them in the alternative story, they become lost. Had we seen the idea of humanity succumbing to its base animalistic nature in the struggle to survive and watching Pi come to terms with the tiger within himself it would have ensured that all of his philosophising seemed more than just shallow and self-important. If all of the lessons he learnt were on a journey that never took place how are we meant to accept them for ourselves?
And what of the whole religion thing? It all seemed rather irrelevant in the end. God is invoked only briefly during Pi’s journey in two rather minor moments: once when a fish ends up jumping into the duo’s boat and when they discover a mysterious carnivorous island that nobody has ever seen or will ever see again. Once again, it all comes back to the framing narrative where certain connections are made between religion and the art of storytelling. Now, good readers, I’m a student of literature and I love the whole symbolism thing but I think this was all just came across as a bit desperate. Considering the storyteller made a big deal of its ability to make one believe in God all it ended up doing was suggest that religion is, in fact, just a way for people to bury their heads in the sand and avoid the harsh realities of life. I’d like to think the novel deals with the themes in a more poetic and measured way but it didn’t come across here. The way the ending was handled just left me feeling a bit cold to everything I had just watched open-mouthed,
Although I cannot say that I fully agree with Peter Bradshaw’s damning 2/5. There were some genuinely lovely moments during the narrative and I think had the film not been placed inside the premise of the elder Pi recounting his tale to an unnamed author it would have deserved the great praise it has been given. With the delightful scenes in Pondicherry and a brief (and Amelie-esque) stop in a Parisian swimming pool, the film’s opening offers a stunning account of Pi’s upbringing at his father’s zoo and his complex, almost obsessive, relationship with religion. It does annoyingly signposts where this film is going with pointed references to Pi’s ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ attitude to religion and his father’s rational disapproval. Rather than introduce us to Pi and his family it introduces us to God, or at least God’s role within the future narrative. Saying that, I actually enjoyed Pi: the early years but I couldn’t escape the feeling that Lee was just going through the motions before he could get to the crux of the film: namely the boy and the tiger.
For that, dear ones, is the whole point of this film. I doubt anyone really cared how Pi and his family ended up being on the doomed freight ship with their entire menagerie or how Pi managed to escape accompanied only by this deadly creature. All that matters is that there is a motherfucking tiger on motherfucking a boat. And what a tiger it is. The CGI used to create Richard Parker, for that is indeed the beast’s name, is mind-blowingly realistic. Of course, it is safe to assume there is a mix of the real and the man-made in there but there is never a point where you become uncomfortably aware that you are watching something made with a computer. I find myself rendered almost speechless by how good it actually was. There was so much detail: the eyes, the fur, the miniscule movements of his muscles and his skeleton. It all comes together to create something that you could genuinely believe was really there. (I realise I’m beginning to gush uncontrollably here but one more point and I’ll move on) Take, for example, Richard Parker’s final scene: we see a close-up of the slightly emaciated tiger jump out of the boat and skulk off into the jungle. The detail on his now more visible skeleton is just exquisite. This one aspect of the film left me with a much greater sense of awe than the narrative itself could ever hope to bring about.
Writing something about this film proved to be difficult. I wanted to like it. I really did. From the first time I saw the imagery on show in the trailer I was hooked. A film that went even further than the sheer beauty of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and the technical brilliance of James Cameron’s Avatar. In the end I can only sum up my feelings with one word: meh. It was good but I felt like something was missing. I didn’t experience the joy and warmth that many have discussed in relation to both the film and the book. I was ready for this film to challenge every idea I had about religion but it didn’t. Yes, I was amazed by the visuals but couldn’t help feeling that there was more to the story than I was seeing here. It’s always difficult translating a novel’s lush description and a main character’s inner thought processes. I have a sense that if I read the book I would find more to this tale than I currently do. Until then I would say, watch and enjoy the Lee’s latest artistic masterpiece but take the narrative and any meaning is proclaims to offer on life, the universe and everything with a rather large pinch of salt.