REVIEW: Life of Pi a spiritual tour de force

Life of Pi (PG)

Director: Ang Lee

4 stars 

It has taken almost a decade to bring to the big screen and had a clutch of high-profile directors attached, including M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron. Now, armed with the sort of technology his predecessors could only have dreamed of, celebrated filmmaker Ang Lee pulls off the impossible, adapting Yann Martel's notoriously complex 2001 novel (with Finding Neverland scribe David Magee) into a magical, spiritual tour de force.

Our young hero, Piscine Patel, named after a swimming pool, survives schoolyard bullying by abbreviating his name to Pi. He lives with his family at the zoo his father runs. Business woes eventually force them to ship off to Canada, which involves a treacherous journey by sea. All but the young lad, a tiger named Richard Parker, a zebra and a rodent perish. Together, this oddball crew must survive one another, as they float aimlessly off to sea.

Lee's film spends the bulk of its time on the ocean, focusing on the relationship between Pi (who's played in the film by three actors, but mostly Suraj Sharma in a stunning feature debut performance) and a 200-kilogram Bengal tiger that naturally wants Pi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Wisely avoiding any notion that the beast could be tamed to coexist with the lad, Lee unleashes his broadest palate yet, aided by lenser Claudio Miranda. We're given a sumptuous array of images that includes whales, dolphins and even an island of meerkats. As with Hugo and Avatar before it, this is precisely what 3D was made for.

Bookending and occasionally interrupting this 200-day tale of survival on water is a more traditional narrative device, in which an older Pi recollects his experiences in flashback to a writer. This comes dangerously close to undermining Lee's work in the main, feeling too cosy and simplistic alongside the glorious visuals on display and grand existential themes explored throughout. Lee easily could have jettisoned such stuff. One imagines its inclusion has more to do with the studio financing the picture than the Oscar-winning filmmaker who made it.

These niggling issues aside, Lee emerges reborn as a creative force here. Where once such technology may have hampered his storytelling ability (notably, with Hulk), here he embraces and runs with it, with all the confidence of a master in full control of his craft. Flawed it may be, but at its core lies an epic journey that's impossible to ignore.

Opens New Year's Day

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