Taiwanese director Ang Lee has developed a reputation for himself as being something of a Jack of all trades, yet unlike the usual ending to this particular figure of speech, he's proving to be a master of them all (let’s just forget Hulk for a minute). He seems to be able to take any genre or situation, be it homosexual cowboys, 18th century England or Chinese philosophy, and create a wonderfully emotional and compelling film, and he has continued such a trend, this time adapting Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, where we follow the situation between a young man and a tiger, stranded alone in the Pacific Ocean.
We delve into the life of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), who grew up in India, in and around his family-run zoo. Much to Pi's displeasure, his parents decide to move to Canada for a more prosperous lifestyle, so they travel across the Pacific, alongside all of the animals that they intend on selling when reaching the other side. However, when a severe sea storm strikes, Pi is the only survivor, as he sails away on a lifeboat, yet although thinking he may be alone, he finds himself joined by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker – and in order to survive any longer, the young man and the fearsome predator are going to have to form some sort of understanding...
The picture is presented as a flashback, as an elder Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his story to a bewildered writer (Rafe Spall), a technique which retains the theme of faith and spirituality within the film, as we know that Pi must survive, against all the odds. Lee is taking somewhat of a brave move in this regard, as a film that is unashamedly (yet gracefully) open about its religious connotations. Often Hollywood shies away from the 'R' word, but this uses religion and faith to great effect, as a film that is magical and carries a really special, sacred atmosphere to it. As the elder Pi states, he has a story that could make you believe in God - and one that can impress even the most ardent of cynics. Such themes are enhanced also by the Indian setting, as there is something so mystical about its culture. From the vivacious colours to the spellbinding music, it simply works as a wonderful backdrop to this story. Life of Pi excels exactly where Midnight's Children suffers, in that it has taken an enchanting, Indian tale and brings it to life, giving it a soul.
This is all helped along greatly by the quite astounding visual experience provided, with some of the finest cinematography you'll ever see. There are a handful of scenes that simply take your breath away – and that's with a pair of darkening, 3D glasses on. In fairness, 3D is implemented to a greater effect in Life of Pi than many other films have yet managed, giving the picture layers and actually using 3D as it should be used – with a purpose. Sometimes you get the impression a film is being made and the studio say “Shall we make it into 3D? Why not!” whereas in this instance you feel that Lee has carefully crafted this production to utilise the technique to its very best potential.
Meanwhile the story is absorbing, and although there are lengthy spells when very little happens you never truly draw your eyes away from the screen. The relationship between Pi and Richard Parker is enticing. There was a worry they'd be the best of friends, and play chess together or something, but it maintains a level of believability amidst the surrealism, as Pi must do all he can to earn the respect of this great animal, while thanks to the impressive special effects, you never once doubt there is actually a tiger on board this small boat. I wonder if a tiger can be up for best supporting actor at the Oscars?
Life of Pi is what going to the cinema is all about – as a fantasy tale that transports you from your seat to a whole different world, and has you transfixed from start to finish. It's experiences like this that reaffirm your love for mainstream cinema and realise that there can be some quite outstanding films made for a vast, worldwide audience.