Unfilmable. There are many books that are held dear to those who have read them and consider their favourite tomes as impossible works of art that would be unable to be committed to celluloid. For anyone who has read it,Yann Martel's The Life Of Pi is one such book.
Then again, Ang Lee is not the kind of individual to be put off by such trivialities! The Taiwanese directer who has delivered outstanding works in both his native tongue - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - and in the West - Brokeback Mountain - has yet again turned his attention to literature. His Sense & Sensibility showed an understanding of remaining true to the source whilst making his own mark on the work and here, with some of the most beautiful 3D imagery committed to celluloid since Scorsese's Hugo, he has truly made this a sight to behold and cherish.
Even with the story of how someones faith in God is tested and eventually rewarded against all the odds, Magee's adapted screenplay and Lee's camerawork combine beautifully together to let you explore the possibility of "faith rewarded" and God on your own terms - it doesn't cram it down your throat forcing you to believe... you can read into it what you will and, like the reminiscing Pi says, "you can chose to believe or not."
The first third of the book dealt with Pi's multiple-conversion to every religion he came across whilst growing up in "one of the most beautiful places on Earth - India." Wisely, Magee's screenplay covers the religious aspect of the story humorously yet respectfully ("I want to be baptised" at the dinner table) in the first 20 minutes through the aid of flashbacks, and then delves head into the real reason why the audience, and Rafe Spall's inquisitive writer are there in the first place - the story of his younger self stranded in a lifeboat with a 3 year old Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. You may not believe in God by the end of Pi's tale but you will want to have shared his experience, however fraught with danger it is.
Without giving away too much, Pi (delightfully played with initial wide-eyed earnest and then forced maturity through unfolding events by Surja Sharma) and Richard Parker (the Bengal tiger named that through a clerical error) are not alone on the lifeboat and the harsh realities of the circle of life are played out in the small floating arena against various backdrops - a raging storm and then the calmest, most astounding sea you could ever hope to see. It is these striking images that make their mark upon the viewer - an endless reflection of sky and sea with a bland white boat floating between the reflective two holding the the beauty and majesty that is the tiger with his orange and black colouring sitting so out-of-place in these surroundings.
Before going any further, this is the time to emphasise exactly how stunning this film is. Normally, a lengthy description on the effects would lean towards the fact that the story, its depiction or the acting is below par as it seems all efforts were placed into the special effects alone. Here, simply put, is a truly beautiful film that could not have been made probably even a few years ago. Even for this trained eye, spotting the difference between the real tiger and the "had to have been used" CGI tiger is virtually impossible. This effect has the affect of not only drawing you in, but helps you to fall in love with a creature that you should fear and not care for. It is that good! The balance of power that continually shifts between Richard Parker and Pi both in and out of the lifeboat helps you to root for both at separate moments whilst still not wanting the other to suffer too much. Not many films can boast manipulating your allegiances and love between an animal and a human - and no, not even Turner & Hooch can pull off what Lee achieves here.
One way that the audience is so easily pulled along by its heart strings is through the films abundance of humour. Forget the absurdity of the premise of a boy and a tiger fighting for dominance on a lifeboat - the marking of the territory by urine is both clever and hysterical but shows the valuable lesson of never going up against a tiger in a pissing contest - it's the learning curve that Pi has to go through in order to survive that conjours up smiles and laughs. His diary of how to train a tiger at sea is delightful - "point 5. Ignore all the other points," after Richard Parker nearly has a meal made entirely out of Pi.
The use of flashback allows you to catch your breath and take on board not only the enormity of the situation and the various solutions that both work and don't - taking all the supplies of the lifeboat for safekeeping and storing them on the makeshift raft away from Richard Parker seems like a good idea at the time until the dazzling display of the luminous whale - but also the visual creativity and beauty that seeps from pretty much every frame of film.
A genuinely feel-good film, The Life Of Pi is one of the most beautiful 2 hours you could ever hope to spend in the cinema - both visually and spiritually. And if you don't want to go stroke a tiger afterwards or discover an island of meerkats that don't utter the phrase "simples" then there is no hope for you. Believe.
UK release date: 20.12.12