Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is the best use of 3D in any film since the inception of the technology’s use, even superior to “Avatar.” It’s the prime example of how to expand the possibilities of the medium. In every meticulous detail, the film is transcendent and awash in magical realism. Adapted from the worldwide bestseller by Yann Martel, the novel was likely regarded by its readers (I am not one of them) as an impossible translation to the big screen. Yet much in the way you have to believe the extraordinary story of a boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger, you have to believe in Ang Lee as a director. Every so often, the right person for the right project comes along, and the result is unbridled imagination and confidence. This is something special, a one-of-a-kind experience that sinks into your soul. It’s also one of the very best films of the year.
It all begins and ends with the power of storytelling. As an adult, Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) recalls his life journey to an author (Rafe Spall) who wants to write about it. We first learn of the origin of Pi’s full name, which is French for swimming pool, but of course his schoolmates refer to him as “pee.” Pi outsmarts them, however, reinventing his name around the mathematical constant beginning with 3.14. Pi grew up surrounded by his family’s zoo in Pondichery, India, and Lee — with the help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda — shows us Pi’s childhood full of clever whimsy.
As a young boy, Pi (Ayush Tandon) learns a valuable lesson about the dangers of animals from his father. It’s a crucial moment between Pi and the zoo’s tiger, named Richard Parker, when the boy learns of life’s harsh realities for the first time. Fast forward to his family’s zoo going broke forcing them to sell and move to Canada. Now older, Pi (Suraj Sharma) experiences a tragic shipwreck during their trip abroad, and his family is never seen again. He’s left stranded on a life boat with a zebra, hyena and an orangutan in a microcosm of a food chain. And then emerges Richard Parker as both a blessing and curse.
The bulk of the film takes place out on sea as we watch the evolving relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. The CGI, motion-capture technology used to bring the ferociousness of the Bengal tiger to life is astonishing. The movement, sounds, actions and most importantly feelings of Richard Parker are fully realized and make a living, breathing creature out of thin air. Pi learns to co-exist with the animal on their tiny, mobile island across a vast expanse of blue sea, which refers back to the movie’s ingenius use of 3D as a storytelling element. Picture this: a tiny white speck of a boat in the open water reflecting back the sky, creating a complete sense of infinity and isolation. There’s no question Lee’s film is a visual masterpiece.
“Life of Pi” is very much a rumination on religion and faith as the young Pi takes on Christianity, Hinduism and Islam all at once and, later in life, wonders what God’s plan for him was all along during his sea voyage. And the story seems almost mystical, especially once a meerkat-covered island comes into play, and it begs the question of how much can you believe? But in the end, it’s a poignant and moving film about seeing what life deals out to you and learning that sometimes you have to be ready to let go.