The Tiger Tamer
Once, many thought that Life of Pi, based upon the novel by Yann Martel, was non-filmmable. But I guess it takes a special someone with much imagination and gusto to tackle it head on, dealing with three aspects many filmmakers would largely and automatically shy away from - children, animals and plenty of water - and delivering one riveting picture that's as visually arresting as it is dramatically challenging in its tale of fantasy, religion, philosophy and life.
In what would essentially be a one man show for the most parts, almost akin to Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away starring Tom Hanks in terms of a tale on the human spirit, Ang Lee didn't have the luxury of a world renowned actor at his side delivering soliloquy after soliloquy, but had the luxury of improved technology to assist in his cause. And technology this time helped to transform this story into what it was, especially when it came to dealing with animals, having to weaken a Bengali tiger over a period of time, as well as to shoot scenes of nature and the food chain, which in normal circumstances would be almost impossible to create and control.
Life of Pi is what it is, with Piscine Molitor Patel, or Pi for short, with an extended little sub-arc to tell of his creation of the nickname, now an adult (Irrfan Khan), and telling his remarkable tale of shipwreck and survival in his family's uprooting from India toward Canada in search of a new life outside of the own they know of, which involved a zoo. But as it turns out, the Japanese vessel they are travelling in sank during a storm encountered while in the Marianas Trench, and the few survivors turned out to be Pi (Suraj Sharma), a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and finally, one of the earth's most dangerous predators, the tiger nicknamed Richard Parker.
Much of the narrative then deals with man versus animal, man versus nature and the elements, and Pi's survival while having to deal with a predator at his doorstep. In Cast Away, Tom Hanks has Wilson to interact with, while here it's a battle between Pi and Richard Parker, which one can allude or metaphors as a battle within oneself for necessities and wants, and the picking up of essential skills to survive. One took us on a slice of life trip on a deserted island, while this one takes us on a slice of life trip drifting along in the vast waters of the Pacific Ocean, amongst what would be one of the last frontiers on the planet.
And this is opportunity for plenty of gorgeous, hyper imagery and visuals, that makes it a technological wet dream to deploy the kind of firepower money can buy for a movie. There's 3D technology, IMAX with its different aspect ratios that creep in during stylized sequences, and Claudio Miranda's cinematography exploiting what's best to bring about plenty of exquisitely crafted, postcard picturesque landscapes and waterscapes that will leave one astounded as these effectively augment the themes of the story, especially dealing with nature, bearing witness to both the tranquility and the ferocity that it can bring.
What made it a lot admirable, is that Ang Lee decided to stick to his guns and cast a group of relative unknowns, and handing over the lead role to a new actor Suraj Sharma, who repaid the director's faith manifold. It demonstrates the leap of faith the director had to undertake, mirroring the same leap of faith Pi had in committing his survival to higher powers, doing the best with what he has at his disposal, with circumstances and outcome for someone higher up to decide. Suraj Sharma holds his own and doesn't look overawed, or too raw for a role that deals with a coming of spiritual age of sorts, and I won't be surprised if this film provides that career boost along the same lines as Dev Patel's of Slumdog Millionaire.
Those who have read the book will know of a second story arc that provides the crux of most post-viewing discussion, allowing points to be made in support of, or against each version being told by Pi. What I thought interesting was how either could be truth, and it says a lot about what us humans would like to hear - only the good stuff, and that in which we can process or accept, and is more palatable for various reasons, versus something that requires a huge dose of faith and belief from the storyteller. In light of what we cannot verify, this theme turns Life of Pi into something of a religious debate, especially since Pi himself is something of a religion connoisseur, dabbling in many and yet being the master of none.
Still, if that doesn't really appeal to you, then Ang Lee's story-telling craft of Yann Martel's fantasy will, of a remarkable trip across an ocean, filled with sadness, despair, yet about survival and hope, complete with stunning visuals that will keep you mesmerized for the most parts, about a boy, a tiger, and the life boat they find themselves sharing under extraordinary circumstances. A definite recommendation, and would probably be shortlisted as one of my favourites of the year!