Every so often a motion picture comes along filled with such stunningly beautiful cinematography and incredibly realistic CGI special effects that it defies adequate description. Academy Award winner Ang Lee’s (“Brokeback Mountain”) “Life of Pi” is that kind of film. In addition to being a cinematic feast, this remarkable movie is an adventure to end all adventures and a superb testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Based upon Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, “Life of Pi” chronicles the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, a native of the Pondicherry Union in India, from the time he is a young boy until he is an adult relating his remarkable story to an author in Montreal, where he now lives with his wife and child. Because Pi is grown when the film begins, much of the story takes place via flashback to when Pi (Surja Sharma) is 17 years old.
When Pi was a youngster in India, his father (Adil Hussain) owned and operated a zoo, and thus Pi grew up familiar with elephants, zebras, hippos, tigers, and other exotic animals. But at one point Pi becomes a little too careless when he tries to hand feed some raw meet to a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
His father comes in just before Pi is about to lose his hand and screams, “The tiger is not your friend! Animals don’t think like we do; people who forget that get themselves killed!”
Then he underscores his point by making Pi watch what Richard Parker does with a live goat.
Because of various changes occurring in India, Pi’s parents decide to close their zoo and move to Canada. To this end they book passage on a Japanese cargo ship and take along with them a select group of animals from the zoo. But Pi’s family never gets to Canada because that night a ferocious storm hits the sea, and the ship sinks leaving Pi as the soul human survivor in one of the lifeboats.
After the storm abates, Pi finds himself in the boat with a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. Although the zebra and the orangutan are passive enough, the hyena becomes extremely aggressive and ultimately kills both the other animals, but his supremacy is extremely ephemeral because suddenly Richard Parker, the huge Bengal tiger, comes bounding out from underneath a tarp on the boat and makes short work of the heinous hyena.
The virtual end of the animal war sets up the situation for the remainder of the film during which Pi and Richard Parker learn how to coexist on their little boat for 227 days at sea. Trust me when I tell you it’s an adventure unlike anything you have seen before.
Back in 2000, Tom Hanks deservedly earned an Oscar nomination for his incredible portrayal of Chuck Noland, a FedEx carrier who must fend for himself on a deserted island following a plane crash. If you saw that film, you’ll recall that Hanks’ character formed a real bond with a volleyball he called Wilson because that was the name printed on it.
The similarities between Noland and Pi are unmistakable because both of them must use all their initiative to survive. In Pi’s case, he has to learn how to deal with a ferocious carnivore, and watching him gradually reach an uneasy truce with Richard Parker is fascinating. In making the scenes with the tiger, Lee obviously used a combination of live animals and computer-generated images. In an online interview, Sharma explained what it was like working with the tigers.
“There were four different tigers of different sizes and personalities. We never really filmed with them, but sometimes I spent six hours a day watching them being trained. I’d watch how they move and see how they were behaving. I’d kind of map it my head so I would have a sense of how the tiger was going to react and what he was going through. When we were filming my scenes, I would just imagine Richard Parker in front of me. Funnily enough, I’ve always been fascinated with tigers, and for some reason I know instinctively how they move. It was hard but it was cool, like having an imaginary best friend. It became a weird combination of memory and imagination.”
In a separate online interview, Lee explained why “Life of Pi” long had been considered an impossible film to make, and his answer was short and to the point.
“Because you cannot make the tiger do everything you want to do, you have to use digital. A digital animal, up until two years ago, was not totally realistic yet, let alone in 3D, and then water is pretty difficult.”
This film definitely offers a prime example of how far CGI technology has advanced because you won’t doubt for one second that the tiger in every single screen shot is indeed real. In fact, it’s worth seeing the film just for the amazing special effects. The storm scenes are particularly remarkable, and apparently they were filmed in a huge wave pool build specifically for the movie.When you consider that this is Sharma’s first shot at acting in a film, his performance is beyond amazing. He is perfectly cast in the part, and as he battles the elements and copes with attempting to pacify a vicious wild animal, he’s consistently believable. Whether his character is enduring the unforgiving forces of nature or marveling at some of the sights on the open sea, Sharma convincingly makes us share in Pi’s every emotion.
Although every frame of this film is outstanding, the scenes with the flying fish and the sudden appearance of a humpback whale literally will take your breath away as will the many scenes featuring the raw beauty of the untamed ocean. In fact, the sea actually becomes a character in the film.
Watching “Life of Pi” (Yes, it gets an enthusiastic 10.) is an unforgettable cinematic experience. Its magnitude and magnificence are unmatched in any film I’ve seen this year, and there is no doubt it will be one of the movies to receive multiple Academy Award nominations on Jan.10. Don’t miss the opportunity to accompany Pi on his life-changing voyage. It will be a trip that will live with you forever.