Over the years there have been plenty of books considered 'unfilmable', where the movie rights have been snapped up early, only for various ambitious projects to die in creative limbo. However with the continuing refinements in CGI technology, nothing is impossible any longer, if a director has the creative vision to make the written word leap off the page and become a tangible screen reality. Ang Lee has tackled the presumed impossibity of filming Yann Martell's prize-winning novel of a teenaged Indian lad adrift at sea for 227 days with only a ravenous adult Bengal tiger for company. Moreover he has created ravishing images to hold our attention and to challenge our beliefs for over two hours. "Life of Pi" may indeed be, the first 3-D film to become a best picture Oscar winner, and deservedly so.
Having read the source novel and now seen the film, I wouldn't like to debate which is the better -- since they are obviously the same basic story but with different emphases and both experiences remain worthwhile. The backstory is that of a boy raised with his older brother and cultured parents in the French-speaking part of India, where his father has created a beautiful zoo in the park of the local botanical gardens. When financial funding falters, causing the family to emigrate to Canada aboard a Japanese cargo ship together with the unsold animals, the teenaged Pi (named after a Parisian swimming pool, but that's another story) resents being uprooted. However he is even more 'at sea' literally when a deadly storm causes the ship to flood and sink, killing his family, and leaving him alone in a lifeboat with only a wounded zebra, a fierce hyena, and an impish orangutan. They are soon joined by the tiger with the delicious name of Richard Parker, who makes quick meals of the other animals, and with whom the forced-to-be-resourceful Pi must strike a modus vivendi. As Martell wrote, "I had to tame him; it was not a question of him or me. We were figuratively in the same boat". The main theme of both the book and the film is the task of finding harmony in this world with seemingly uncontrollable forces.
First-time teenaged actor Suray Sharma does a remarkable job of filling Pi's slight frame and he has been given the difficult task of making the bulk of the movie move so swiftly. Richard Parker may be computer-generated -- and brilliantly so -- but he becomes as real and believable a character as young Pi, and Sharma makes us believe in their careful coexistence. He is left to hold the film together as the framing story told by the now middle-aged Pi (Infan Khan) to would-be writer Rafe Spall could nearly have been omitted without destorying the film's pleasures. The only 'name' actor in the cast is Gerard Depardieu who has what is at best a minor cameo as the ship's surly cook, but whose character becomes important in the film's denouement. As a schoolboy back in India, Pi was attracted to various religions merging his original Hindu upbringing with tenets from Christianity and Muslim faiths -- and as the adult Pi tells Spall, his is a tale meant to strengthen our own faith and perhaps to gain a better understanding of God. Not all viewers will take this lesson away from the film, but all of us should find our belief strengthened that everything is now cinematically possible.
When Pi eventually washes up in Mexico and Richard Parker disappears into the jungle without a goodbye nod, the Japanese shipwreck investigators do not believe the story of his journey with the tiger nor how they found a toxic island inhabited solely by thousands of nodding meerkats. So he invents another version of the events which had him adrift in a lifeboat with a sailor, his mother, and the murderous cook until such time as he was the only survivor. They buy this story, but we do not, finding it even more difficult to credit that the religion-obsessed, vegetarian boy would turn cannibal to survive. We prefer the first version of his adventure as told in Martell's book and as brought to the screen here, whether this is the real story or not. Some people have put forth a theory that Pi and the tiger are one and the same character, contrasting our humanity and our quest for survival vs. the animalistic instincts that are buried deep in all of us. This is an interesting theory strengthened by the fact that the tiger's original name was "Thirsty" and that there was an earlier scene when young Pi is dared to enter the local Catholic church to taste the holy water, only to meet a priest offering a glass of water, saying "you must be thirsty"!!! I think I prefer the tale of Pi and the fearsome Richard Parker as told.
It would be remiss not to comment on Lee's use of 3D. The start of the film which focuses on the various inhabitants of the zoological park is cleverly and amusingly photographed and there are also some beautifully surreal and cool shots of ocean life during the long voyage. However one soon begins to forget that one is watching a 3D film -- which in itself is good and which speaks well of Lee's directorial skills. The film would probably be just as satisfying in its 2D version, since Pi and Richard Parker are such well-drawn characters that we don't need a third dimension to believe in them as rounded realities.