We’ve entered a silly period in film criticism where moviemakers earn plaudits for making movies out of “un-filmable” material, usually novels or stories designed to dwell in a reader’s mind but not on a screen.
The reality, of course, is that with contemporary technology nothing is truly un-filmable. Throw enough money at any idea nowadays and it can become a movie.
The overblown though dramatically undernourished “Cloud Atlas” caught a pass from many reviewers for this reason without enough of them stopping to ask the most basic question: Why did anyone think that story — or rather stories — belonged on the big screen?
Ang Lee’s “The Life of Pi” is now getting applauded more for the use of “groundbreaking” technology to get another un-filmable story on screen than for his actual achievements, which are considerable.
Yes, for one of the few times in recent years, 3D is used as a story-making tool rather than a marketing gimmick. And the blend of CGI, humans and nature is inspired although not groundbreaking in any real sense.
But Lee’s achievement far outstrips these superficial accomplishments.
What Lee has done is take one of the truly original novels of the still young 21st century and found the images to capture the tricky theme of a spiritual journey —the journey of a soul to comprehend the nature of faith.
Outwardly, Yann Martel’s amazing 2001 novel evokes themes from Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad and Jack London where men battle to survive nature at her fiercest. A disaster at sea, a raft on the ocean, the quest for food, water and shelter — it’s all there and you’ve been there before.
Although never with a Bengal tiger.
But as the preliminary chapters — and in the film version the first act set in Pondicherry, India during the 1970s — make clear, the hero embarked on his spiritual quest much earlier.
This would be Piscine Militor Patel, who found it necessary to change his name to Pi to keep classmates from mocking the odd first name — he was named after a swimming pool in Paris — by calling him “pissing.”
Born a Hindu with many gods at his disposal, Pi (Suraj Sharma for most of the film with Pi’s early days played by Ayush Tandon) has enough curiosity to investigate and receive instruction in Catholicism and Islam as well — to the disapproval of his agnostic father.
His father (Adil Hussain) operates a zoo in Pondicherry, the one-time capital of French India. When Pi thinks he has established a “friendship” with a Bengal tiger with its own odd name of Richard Parker (a mix-up in paperwork that amused the family enough to keep the name), his father teaches him a hard lesson about the ferocious nature of the animal world.
Conditions in India are hard though so his father and mother (Tabu) decide to give up the zoo and emigrate to Canada. To Pi’s sorrow, the family boards a Japanese cargo ship along with several animals they mean to sell.
But in the middle of the Pacific, a storm sinks the ship and Pi finds himself on a life boat with several animals — including the tiger. It isn’t long before the other animals have met their expected fate as meals for the hungry tiger so the survivors are reduced to Pi and Richard Parker.
With the aid of a raft he constructs (connected to the boat by a rope) that allows him to escape the tiger’s domain, Pi uses his wits to catch food, trap rain water and discover a way to tame Richard Parker into an uneasy co-existence on which their survival will depend.
So you can see the surfaces of this fable stick closely to young boys adventure fiction albeit with fantastic elements. Martel and Lee, however, have bigger game to bag.
Even as he struggles against overwhelming odds at sea, Pi contextualizes his adventure in spiritual terms. He is open to every encounter and adventure as gifts from the Almighty. But these are gifts that provoke thought — thought about nature and about suffering, morality and faith.
Giving credit where credit it due the story remains Martel’s. David Magee’s (“Finding Neverland”) screen adaptation never veers far off course from the novel’s essentials. The story is narrated by the adult Pi (veteran Irrfan Khan who lends a light gravitas to its telling), an idea suggested somewhat in the novel itself.
Lee begins this with early scenes shot on the grounds of Pondicherry’s botanical gardens and the candle-lit 1,000-year-old Vallanur Temple at night that aim for an exotic, otherworldly aura.
A simple scene in a swimming pool, for instance, suspends the swimmer in a netherworld. Animals appear like characters in a children’s book. The vivid colors of a tea plantation look almost like paintings.
When shooting the shipwreck at sea or Pi’s first moments on the lifeboat, these images while tragic take on a transcendent beauty. Floating for days on open water, Lee and DP Claudio Miranda angle the 3D camera down so the sea reflects the sky, making Pi seem to float on that sky, a young boy caught between heaven and earth.
So all that follows — flying fish, a giant humpback, the bioluminescent ocean, another tumultuous storm and a mysterious “carnivorous” island — seem like things out of a dream.
“Richard Parker” is pretty much a CG image. Based on four actual tigers used as “performance references,” the tiger in the boat is a triumph of CG work. All gestures, nuances and physical attributes are accomplished with tremendous verisimilitude.
Young Sharma holds his place well amid all the amazing oceanic effects produced in the world’s largest wave tank build in Taiwan and the CG animals and fish.
He plays scared, excited, miserable and strangely moved throughout his character’s journey. This is a major performance for an inexperienced actor making his first movie.
In mathematics, the constant pi — the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter — is an irrational number, meaning one that goes on forever. The novelist and now the filmmaker use Pi as a metaphor for the endless irrational nature of life.
Yet as artists and storytellers, they subvert the irrational and give meaning to the seemingly haphazard series of fantastic events. The film’s resplendent images create a modern-day fable that reaches out to the unknown.
The story deals with God, life and death and the relationship between man and beasts. It’s a coming-of-age film that assumes metaphysical proportions within the utter simplicity of a boy, a tiger and a lifeboat.
The movie’s framing device is that of a writer who comes to the older Pi’s Montreal home to hear his story. He has been told by Pi’s “mamaji” or honorary uncle that this is a story that will make him believe in God.
I’m not sure about that but this is a movie that will make you believe in cinema.
Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012 (20th Century Fox)
Production: Fox 2000, Haishang Films, Gil Netter Productions
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu, Adril Hussain, Shravanthi Sainath, Ayush Tandon, Vibish Sivakumar
Director: Ang Lee
Screenwriter: David Magee
Based on the novel by: Yann Martel
Producers: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark
Executive producer: Dean Georgaris
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: David Gropman
Music: Mychael Danna
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editor: Tim Squyers
PG rating, 127 minutes