Maybe it’s time we stopped calling certain movies ‘unfilmable’. Lord of the Rings was apparently unfilmable and looked how that turned out. It was impossible to turn Jack Kerouac’s On The Road into a film they said, yet they managed it. Life of Pi was yet another film supposedly unfilmable, yet director Ang Lee has made a complete mockery of that claim and has produced something that proves said term is surely now obsolete.
Based on the 2001 Man Booker Prize winner of the same name, Life of Pi is the story of Pi Patel whose family must relocate their zoo from India to Canada. However, during a terrible storm their ship sinks and Pi finds himself alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Well, not quite alone; he has a huge Bengal tiger called Richard Parker (animals with human names are the best) for company. Pi has to somehow survive being in such close quarters with the tiger, as well as battle the elements and overcome his hunger, thirst and loneliness.
In that short synopsis it’s pretty easy to see why the film was considered unfilmable – Pi has to be on a lifeboat next to a freakin’ great tiger. No insurance company is going to cover that. Therefore it would have to be done with CGI, and up until reasonably recently the technology wasn’t available to pull it off. Now, however, it very much is and it’s been done with aplomb. The visuals are simply astounding from start to finish. The animation of all the animals, particularly Richard Parker, is breathtaking and it doesn’t take long to forget entirely that they aren’t real. It’s a real reminder of some of the amazing animals there are out there on the planet, even if, in this case, most of them are made on a computer.
The cinematography only adds to the film’s splendour. Almost every shot looks like a work of art, whether it’s gigantic waves crashing against the boat, a whale gobbling up millions of bioluminescent sea creatures or an ocean of calm and serenity with nothing but open water as far as the eye can see. This is where the 3D must also get a mention. Even for 3D dissenters, of which there are many, Life of Pi shows that it can work and there is a place for it if done correctly. Whilst many 3D films are lazily put together, Ang Lee has clearly taken the time to think how it would be best used and the effects are very satisfying. It’s not gratuitous and doesn’t feel like a gimmick, which is about as much as you can ask for. You’ll likely not miss out on much by seeing it in old fashioned tood but the 3D certainly won’t spoil the film as is often the case.
In terms of performances, there isn’t really a huge amount going on other than that of the various actors portraying Pi at different ages. Suraj Sharma, who is the Pi we see on the lifeboat, does an admirable job, especially considering he’s acting to nothing for the most part. Having to pretend you’re in a certain place or certain things are there when you’re acting is something that more and more actors are having to deal with thanks to CGI, but at no point is Sharma anything other than completely believable and committed to the role. Irrfan Kahn as the adult Pi also does well despite having limited screen time. The other major character is, of course, Richard Parker, and by the end of the film it’s easy to become just as invested in him as it is Pi.
Life of Pi is a film about storytelling. It is told in flashbacks narrated by adult Pi to a writer (Raff Spall in the world’s easiest paycheck) and is incredibly simple in its construction. It’s an incredibly pure form of storytelling leading to an conclusion which has the ability to beguile and astound and is ripe for interpretation and analysis. The film does take its time in getting going, with some details and scenes feeling a little unnecessary in the first 20 minutes or so, but after that everything is paced perfectly. Just one scene featuring an island of meerkats feels slightly odd.
Another major theme of the film is that of religion and the existence of God. This may attract some and may put others off, but if you are one thinking of giving it a miss on that basis, then you should reconsider. At no point does the film preach or ram pro-religious messages down your throat (believe me, as an atheist I would be the first to mention if it did). Instead, it simply lets you make up your own mind, treating the audience with a huge amount of respect. Almost everything in the film can be taken at face value or as metaphor, allowing you to take as much or as little from it as you like. Some have said that Life of Pi will make you believe in God, but that’s missing the entire point of the film. It’s much more intelligent than that.
So let’s do away with the term ‘unfilmable’, shall we? Life of Pi proves that this is an antiquated term nowadays, and if there are any other texts considered ‘unfilmable’, perhaps we should just give them to Ang Lee.