Thursday 20 December 2012

Life of Pi review

Life of Pi (PG, 127 mins)
Director: Ang Lee
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel, Life of Pi, has long been considered unfilmable, and without advances in visual effects technology, it may well have been.

This is a film in which, for probably half the running time, there’s a computer generated tiger on screen that for not one second looks anything other than real. That’s a remarkable achievement, up there with your Gollums and Jurassic beasties in terms of quality and realism, and not one that should be taken lightly.

The fact it’s in service of an ambitious but ultimately less than fully satisfying story doesn’t necessarily add credence to the unfilmable debate, but does perhaps reveal that it’s the kind of material that simply works better on the page.

That’s further backed up by the necessity of an all-encompassing narration to get the story across and accompany the episodes because, in its protagonist Pi, we don’t have a character forging his own path, at least initially, but being swept along by fate.

We begin in Canada, where Irrfan Khan’s adult Pi is telling his story to Rafe Spall’s author in a framing device that may at first seem clumsy, but which actually proves to be central to the film’s thematic intent.

“Believe what you want”, he tells him, as he recounts how he began life in India as a young boy called Piscine, after his uncle’s great love for swimming. Shortened to Pi, he follows three different faiths while his parents run a zoo that houses a tiger called Richard Parker. Pi doesn’t understand the nature of animals, thinking he and Richard Parker can be friends, but by the time he’s a teenager (and played by Suraj Sharma) his family are forced to sell everything and move abroad, transporting the zoo to Canada with them.

This makes for a stately first three quarters of an hour or more, until a stunningly executed shipwreck leaves Pi and Richard Parker on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific, along with a zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena, although the latter three don’t last long.

What follows is a battle for survival against the elements, hunger and the tiger, which while frequently exhilarating, can become repetitive. Though ostensibly a family film, it acknowledges the violence, the nature of nature as it were, though there are lots of animal antics for kids to coo over, and meerkat fans will be in raptures.

The vast amount of CGI is brilliantly realised yet never draws attention to itself, and there has rarely been a film this gorgeous, especially once we’re out on the open sea with its fantastic pastel shades. But it’s also quite static and given to treading water, missing that vital kick of emotion so that while beautiful, it’s never transcendent, and interesting without ever being able to fully exert a grip.

There’s empathy but never real soul as it rambles towards its point. Because, above all, Life of Pi is a rumination on the power of metaphors, in both storytelling and religion. Depending on your point of view it’s either a stirring parable or a nice story, well told. Its ultimate gambit is a bold one, but it’s not going to be for all tastes.

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