Life of Pi: “Zebras, and tigers, and boats! Oh my!”

16 Jan

Life of Pi

January is traditionally the month when we here in the UK get all the Oscar-bait, all the movies crowding in “for your consideration” before the awards season. Even though I stopped giving much of a fuck about the Oscars as an indicator of cinematic artistry some time around the year of Titanic/LA Confidential, I still like to see everything that’s up for a gong before the awards themselves come around.

Apparently this didn't even get a mention. Weird.

Apparently this didn’t even get a mention. Weird.

This year, I’ve been a little tardy. I missed AmourBeasts of the Southern Wild and Silver Linings Playbook, all of which look amazing, and have yet to watch Django Unchained, Lincoln, Les Miserables and Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, until 2 days ago the only movie nominated for Best Film that I’d seen was Argo, which I loved.

Now I can at least pit Ben Affleck’s taut and classy little thriller against Ang Lee’s epic adaptation of Life of Pi, the bestselling novel by Yann Martel.

Life of Pi

I must say, my expectations for this weren’t particularly high. Cultish, literary novels don’t always translate well to the big screen (witness last year’s ponderous, chin-strokey adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis), and the trailer features one of Coldplay’s more annoying efforts. What’s more, the movie is in 3D, and there’s still a ridiculous little snob inside me who thinks 3D movies are desperate and a little bit trashy.

For every 'Hugo' there's 1000 of these.

For every Hugo there’s 1000 of these.

Luckily, I was wrong on all fronts. Firstly, that Coldplay song isn’t even in the movie (HUZZAH!). And okay, so I haven’t read the novel and can’t exactly comment on how successfully it’s been adapted, but on film Life of Pi is a great big adorable shaggy dog of a story. Its hero, Piscine Molitor Patel (aka “Pi”) is a young Indian lad named after a French swimming pool, whose father runs a zoo in Pondicherry. When his family emigrates to Canada, they decide to take the animals with them, aboard a Japanese cargo vessel, but tragedy strikes when the boat hits a storm and sinks, and Pi is left shipwrecked in a lifeboat with only a tiger named Richard Parker, a frantic zebra, a grieving orangutan, and a vicious hyena for company.

I won’t spoil any more of it for you, suffice to say that despite being set, almost in its entirety, on a single lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Life of Pi is an epic film, packed with suspense, humour, and eye-wateringly beautiful images.

Life of Pi

As well as worrying, before seeing the film, about Coldplay and tacky 3D, I’d been concerned about the CGI which, in the trailer, looked a little plastic. This is a problem typical with trailers, which tend to get hammered together before the boffins behind the special effects have properly finished working on them, but the end results here are genuinely spectacular. The only reason I know the tiger must be CGI is that it seems unlikely a major studio would put its 19-year-old lead actor in a lifeboat with a dangerous animal. Otherwise, it looks entirely lifelike and convincing. When the CGI backdrops are at their most artificial, it’s more in the style of The Wizard of Oz’s stunning matte paintings – lyrical, picturesque and dreamlike – than the dodgy “blue screen” of an old Bond movie.

You're fooling no-one, Roger.

You’re fooling no-one, Roger.

As for the 3D, its use here is nothing less than jaw-dropping. I’ve never quite felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I did when Pi first realises he’s sharing his boat with a giant, man-eating tiger; the way the snarling beast lunges out of the screen is just about the most thrilling thing I’ve ever seen in a 3D movie.

This was also pretty special.

This was also pretty special.

Considering he has to carry much of the film on his own newcomer Suraj Sharma does a splendid job as Pi; awkward, endearing, and often heartbreaking. The rest of the cast, which includes Hindi stars Tabu and Adil Hussain, and Brit actor Rafe Spall, are similarly strong, holding their own against Ang Lee’s luscious visuals. I was a little uncertain about what seemed the novelty casting of Gerard Depardieu (easily the most recognisable face on screen – at least to a Western audience) as the ship’s cook, but by the final reel this makes a kind of sense.

Some may find the film’s denouement a little contrived, or clumsy, and skeptical viewers may find themselves scoffing through their popcorn, but in a world in which much of what passes for movie entertainment is coldly cynical and based on a 1980s range of toys by Hasbro, surely there’s room for something that aims to be transcendental and maybe a little bit airy fairy.

Life of Pi

Okay, so by the end credits Pi’s story may not have made me believe in God (as Spall’s character is told it will), but it had at least put forward a persuasive argument for why people choose to believe in Him. To have that even as an idea, as a point of discussion, in a mainstream movie that’s wall-to-wall CGI, and 3D, and cost a gazillion dollars (actually $120million, but still), and has netted over $400million at the box office, in a year that threatens us with Transformers 4… That’s nothing short of a miracle, surely?

Lastly, for parents who want to take their kids to something with a little bit of substance but don’t want to sit through all 104 hours of The Hobbit and can’t wait for the next Pixar film, I can’t recommend Life of Pi enough. While the subject matter may sound a little weighty, it is at heart an adventure story, and a very exciting one at that. Why it’s not been marketed more as a family movie, I’ll never know, but I’m certain I would have loved this film as much when I was 9 as I did aged 34.

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One Response to “Life of Pi: “Zebras, and tigers, and boats! Oh my!””

  1. psychedk January 17, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    I saw it a couple of weeks ago. Even though it at times were a tad too sentimental for my taste, I loved it. The story was funny (the conversations between Pi and his parents were *hilarious!) and did not take it self too seriously, though, which made up for it. I also found it a little sad and I’m finding it hard to let it go. That’s definitely a plus in my book!

    I saw it in 2D, because I’m no fan of 3D either. I want to *see* a movie, not be *in* it. However, it was so obviously made for 3D, scenes were filmed in specific ways just for that, that I wished I had swallowed my ideals and gone and see it as it should have been seen. It ended up being a little annoying, at least on the big screen. Maybe it’ll be different on dvd.

    I also marveled at the tiger I’ve never before seen so realistic CGI. You just couldn’t tell. Amazing.

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