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Life of Pi (9/10)

by Tony Medley


OK for children.

This is a compelling, metaphysical adventure about an Indian teenager stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a man-eating Bengal Tiger. Although the first half-hour setting up Patek Pi's upbringing in Pondicherry, India as the son of a zookeeper is slow enough to put you to sleep, it picks up when the family decides to move their zoo to Canada and boards a Japanese freighter.

Shot in marvelous 3-D, which is generally sublimated to the beauty of the cinematography, the sinking of the freighter is as good as, if not better than, the depiction of the sinking of the Titanic a decade ago.

Narrated by an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) who is being interviewed by a writer (Rafe Spall), the bulk of the film is about the fight for survival by 17-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma), who finds himself adrift on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a Bengal Tiger as his companion. In the first half hour setup, Pi was caught by his father trying to feed the tiger by hand. His father grabbed him, remonstrating that, "The tiger is not your friend. When you look in its eyes, what you see is yourself reflected back."

It turns out that the story is one long allegory (script by David Magee, based on the 2001 novel by Yann Martel that has sold over 7 million copies). Beautifully directed by Ang Lee the film does not let one rest as Pi battles not only the sea but the tiger, named Richard Parker. Richard Parker should be up for an Oscar® but, unbelievable as it may seem, the tiger is a product of computer-graphics (CG) technology, overseen by visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). It's so well done that it's almost impossible to believe that the vicious tiger roaming around the lifeboat is just an advanced version of Donald Duck.

Similarly, the massive Pacific Ocean in which Richard Parker and Pi found themselves trapped was recreated in Taichung, Taiwan, on the site of a former airport, in a tank that measured 70 meters long, 30 meters wide and 4 meters deep, with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons, that allowed the filmmakers to generate a range of water textures.  For the sinking of the ship and the massive storm sequence, the tank’s water was replaced by CG water!

I mention these technical details because, interesting as the story and the movie are, the way the movie was made is at least as interesting, and I came out of the film with as many questions about them as I had about the meaning of the film, with one of the better twist endings you'll encounter.

This is one of the best films of the year.