When this film was in its initial release, I freely admit to being less than thrilled about its existence. I read the book, by Canadian author Yann Martel, a few years ago and I confess that l read it simply to see what all the hoopla was about. Overall, I wasn’t terribly impressed. I felt that the story had a rather bland writing style accompanied by an obvious (but not offensive) religious undertone. There was something that simply didn’t engage me. But I finished, and mostly just forgot about it. Then, a handful of years later, I heard about the inevitable cinematic adaptation and found myself mildly curious, especially when visionary director Ang Lee settled in behind the camera. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the majority of Lees films, in large part due to his incredible sense of color and composition. Both of those aspects are treated in a most meticulous fashion in this film and, as a result, this version of the story easily nudges in front of the source material, as my preferences go. For those who don’t know, the story follows a young Indian man, Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel, who has become a self-professed Hindu/Christian/Muslim while growing up amongst the animals in his fathers small zoo, in India. Just as Pi is coming into his own as a man and as an individual, his family opts to make a life-changing move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (no shit, life changing!). After loading all the animals onto a Japanese cargo ship, they set out on their journey. Part way across the Pacific, the ship runs headlong into a violent storm and is spectacularly sent to the bottom. Through a sliver of good luck, Pi finds himself on the only surviving lifeboat to get free as the broken ship is swallowed by the sea. But, he’s not alone. Scrambling about with him is a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. And thus begins Pis fight for survival and his discovery of a ‘higher’ power. First off, this adaptations primary strength is its gorgeous myriad of memorable images. Ang Lee goes to town here with the visuals and it’s beautiful. On the big screen this film would have been incredible, especially in 3D. Scenes involving all manner of aquatic animals and environments almost pop off the screen. The majestic menace of an adult whale breaching through the brilliant green hue of the night-time marine phosphorescence. A frantic storm of silvery flying fish cutting across the oceans glittering surface. The surreal view of Pi floating below the dark waves, watching the still-lit wreck of the doomed ship as it slowly sinks nearby. A moment of calm where the sky and the water cease to act as separate entities, blending magically into one trippy mess of color and texture. These, and many more, really do their parts in breathing some ‘wonder’ into a rather bland and somewhat pretentious literary story (in my opinion). As acting goes, it’s mostly quite good, with young Indian actor Suraj Sharma fully embodying the (slightly) caricature-ish protagonist. The true standout, as characters go, is the Bengal tiger Richard Parker. The CG is absolutely spot on, to the point where I would be hard-pressed to tell you where the CG tiger ended and the real one (if one was even used) began. What really lent tangibility to Richard Parker is that, not once, does he manifest anything BUT tiger mannerisms. He and Pi don’t suddenly become buds. The tiger is always a tiger and therefore, always a potential menace. But watching Pi try to figure out ways to make this desperate existence work is something of a treat on to itself. The flick is very episodic and I could see this possibly bothering some people, but each of the ‘episodes’ is so beautifully rendered (literally) that it would be easily forgiven. Also easily forgiven is the religious subtext, held over from the book. Lee and Co. don’t beat the audience over the head with some heavy handed religious message. Instead, we see how the ‘message’ affects Pi as he struggles to find meaning in what could be the last ‘great’ experience of his life. I can comfortably admit that Life of Pi was a better movie-going experience than I was initially expecting and it’s a film that I believe almost anyone will get SOMETHING positive out of, even if it’s just the wondrous visuals.
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