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Review: Life of Pi

By Jugu Abraham • Published on December 3, 2012

[A]ng Lee needs to be congratulated for making an engaging movie Life of Pi. Few other directors would have dared to even attempt the feat. As a Taiwanese director, the odds were stacked against him—filming an award-winning book populated with Indians talking in authentic Indian English accents about their quilt of culture, religion and even politics. Add to these problems, the technical difficulties of creating credible scenes of various animals and then editing all the visuals to match the tale is truly daunting.

Ang Lee had earlier proven his incredible skill of incorporating computer graphics (CG) and special effects in his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000–a movie that went on to win a bagful of Oscars and worldwide popular acceptance). Some will point out that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon never won a major award at any major film festival of repute. So also, a keen cineaste will note, that Life of Pi, which can boast of the finest CG in cinema to date in 3D, was not picked up by the three major international film festivals–Cannes, Venice and Berlin–in their competition line-ups. But at the same time, Life of Pi is a sure shot contender in the 2013 Oscar race just as many Ang Lee films have turned up trumps in the past. And quite appropriately, Ang Lee and the studio’s publicity mandarins have ensured that Life of Pi will open lesser film festivals: New York, Goa’s Indian International Film Festival and Dubai. Ang Lee knows where his film belongs. He has consciously made the film to grab a particular slice of the global audience that would make the box office jingle. And that he will.

A still from Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a CG dreamboat. The team behind the film needs to be congratulated on recreating a Royal Bengal Tiger with muscles rippling under its fur and a face that is more expressive than many living actors today. The film even has shots of an emaciated tiger climbing out of the boat after months without sufficient food and water, floating in the Pacific, and then stepping out on terra firma on the Mexican coast, testing the ground if it was indeed real. The visuals are so real that it is difficult to persuade an ignorant viewer that the animals are fake and that the actor playing Pi never had a live tiger’s head on his lap or even saw one while in front of the camera. One would be surprised if Life of Pi does not sweep a bagful of Oscars in 2013. But what did Ang Lee truly achieve in this movie beyond the 3D CG magic?

Without any doubt, Ang Lee has been able to convey the spirit of Yann Martel’s novel–faith in God, well-researched animal behavior, fantasy, and an intriguing end that tosses the question of illusion and reality in the viewer’s lap. Ang Lee has been successful in presenting the ecumenical Pi, who is a practising Hindu, Christian and Muslim, even though Pi’s conversion to Islam is barely shown in the film (not so in the novel).

An honest evaluation of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is not possible without having read Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Any viewer who has read the book will see Ang Lee’s touch as he and his scriptwriter David Magee have intentionally chosen not to film certain parts of the book but instead added sequences to the film that never appeared in Martell’s book. These differences provide the viewer with insight into judging the true merits of Ang Lee’s film.

It is very evident to an observant viewer–even without reading the book–that Ang Lee has one aim. That one aim is to make the film bereft of blood and violent scenes. Ang Lee has very intelligently shown a tiger killing a hyena and a hyena eating a live zebra, just to mention two of many sequences that strangely do not put off the viewer. There is no blood (or almost no blood) and no reason why a caring parent will cover the eyes of their children from seeing a carnivore kill another animal to survive. Ang Lee and the studios that made Life of Pi have made a film that cleverly suggests various animal actions that never end up repulsing the viewer. It almost brings to mind the sanitized Walt Disney films of yore. Imagine the lifeboat in the tale, several days in the sea with all the animal remains. When Ang Lee does show the boat’s floor briefly, it is only water that you see on an unscratched surface. That is just one of the departures the filmmakers have intentionally made. They have made a film that is agreeable to the largest number of viewers possible.

The director and scriptwriter made three or four fascinating additions to the Yann Martell tale. The sequence where the tiger named Richard Parker jumps out of the boat and then finds that it is able to swim but unable to climb back on board and is helped back on the boat by an innovative Pi, is truly a lovely addition. This sequence strengthens the bond between man and animal under trying (un)natural situations, affirming that man is possibly more considerate than an animal. I congratulate the filmmakers for their artistic license they took to make this addition. The second addition is the creation of Pi’s sweetheart Anandi, the dance student, who never graced the novel. This addition reveals Ang Lee’s commercial instincts to add a female character to a film dominated by males. Did it add value? This critic is not convinced that it did. A third addition to the book is the shot of the young Pi trying to feed a live tiger in the zoo and being stopped at the eleventh hour by his father. (In the book, Pi claims he never did any such thing and is puzzled why his father should show him and his brother, how dangerous the animal could be by sacrificing a live goat in front of his sons’ eyes to the horror of his wife as well.) This is an addition that improves on the book and makes the incident more credible. The fourth addition that an inattentive viewer could miss is the brief long shot of the mysterious floating island built on algae that resembles a sleeping human form as Pi’s boat drifts away, after the visit to “the island.” That was indeed a clever addition by the filmmakers but it lacked its virtual symbolic punch because of the director’s and scriptwriter’s deliberate decisions not to show the bizarre and the terrifying bits of the book, which made the book what it is.

Irrfan Khan in Life of Pi

To some it is unfortunate that Ang Lee and his team decided to verbalize the alternate story of Pi narrated towards the end of the film to the Japanese representatives of the sunken ship instead of visualizing it on screen. One could easily understand that an Ang Lee who was obviously flinching from showing details of raw animal meat or even raw fish earlier in the film would never include a gruesome beheading that the alternate tale entailed. So, too, is the surrealistic encounter of Pi with another boat carrying a man with a French accent that the tiger kills and subsequently driving Pi to cannibalism, which was a key bit to the story described in the novel that Ang Lee decided to discard again for the sake of popular taste. Assume for an instant that Ang Lee had decided to have Gerard Depardieu (who plays the French cook on the sunken ship) reappear in that scene from the book. Life of Pi would then have been catapulted into an intellectual plane and made the Cannes/Venice competition class—but then Ang Lee was making a Disney film and not making a realistic film with blood and gore. The simple vegetarian meal prepared by Pi, in the movie, would then have suggested something more profound for the viewer.

Life of Pi, the movie provides sanitized entertainment. It presents Indian characters that appear more Indian than David Lean, a perfectionist in his time, accomplished in his A Passage to India (1984). The only scene that was compromising in CG quality was perhaps the one which has Pi’s uncle swimming in Piscine Molitor in Paris where Pi’s uncle looked unreal. Even with what the filmmakers chose ultimately to show on screen.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a treat to watch in 3D with its limited intellectual query made to the viewer to mull over about which of the two tales narrated by Pi is the real one. However, before one sings praises of Ang Lee and his talented team, one ought to demarcate what needs to be credited to Martel (who in turn, borrowed the basic idea from a 1981 Brazilian novel ‘Max and the Cats’). Martel’s book offers much more than the film for the reader/viewer to figure out but Ang Lee and his team has brought the beauty of the tiger and the ocean’s fauna closer to the average viewer’s minds in a manner words can never accomplish.

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