Filled with astonishing images and digital legerdemain, Ang Lee’s version of “The Life of Pi” is among the most beautiful movies ever made.
And it can be watched with the sound off.
Of course, that’s neither totally necessary nor entirely advisable, but don’t let listening to the words distract you from the rewards of watching a boy and his very big cat, adrift on an aquamarine sea filled with incident.
Canadian author Yann Martell’s novel won the 2002 Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth’s highest literary honor, and praise around the world. But it remains a precise yet shaggy tiger tale about the stories of gods and the nature of storytelling.
For a mass audience, Lee and screenwriter David Magee concentrate less on the novel’s many observations about religion and animal husbandry and more on depicting the Crusoesque adventure at its heart.
This is a story that burdens its protagonists with picaresque names and too many opinions, yet brings them bracingly alive.
That is especially true of Richard Parker, who is none of the real or fictional seamen from actual or novel shipwrecks or cannibal narratives of the past. He is a Bengal tiger, one of the few survivors of this particular shipwreck, and as much the engine of the action as any storm upon the waves.
Although Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda used live animals for some single shots of their pantherine star, the Richard Parker who interacts with others is a completely artificial construct. Yet this tiger seems entirely natural whether swimming or jumping, swiping with a huge claw or sitting quietly as a light breeze brushes its fur.
As wonderful as many of the other shots are in this movie, nothing would work without the tiger brought to life by digital effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and Rhythm & Hues, a California visual effects studio.
Richard Parker’s partner in adventure, Piscine Patel, is shared among four actors of various ages, but primarily played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma in a compelling performance of an over-burdened character.
While simplified from the novel, Piscine’s backstory remains essentially the same. His father was impressed by the description a family friend, a champion swimmer, gave of the old Piscine Molitor complex by the Bois de Boulonge as the best pool in Paris, “the water was so clean and clear you could have used it to make your more coffee.”
No more, hélas, the vacant Art Deco complex still exists, but mainly as an attractive nuisance for vandals and graffiti. But in France, that rational land of Descartes, no one names their child “Swimming Pool,” or “Apple,” or for that matter “Appel.”
This, however, is fictional India, and specifically Pondicherry, a one-time French outpost in Tamil Nadu on India’s southeastern coast. And young Piscine will eventually shorten his unfortunate name through a feat of scholarship, or at least memorization, that enables the author to label him as the most irrational of numbers, the ever-expanding Pi.
The older Pi Patel (Bollywood star Irrfan Khan) tells to his mutual survival story to an eager young Canadian author (Rafe Spall, not making much of an impression). As a boy in India, he lived in a zoo run by his parents, well played by noted Indian actors Adil Hussain and Tamu. Eventually, they decide to relocate to Canada, taking passage or a ship with a name straight out of the kabbalah.
Young Pi could also stand for pious, because he decides not simply to sample but to believe every major religion he happens upon.The book predictably upsets all factions, but the movie is at pains to avoid offense.