In this adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel a young boy called Pi (short for Piscine) is struggling with his spirituality. At the same time his father is struggling to keep the family zoo afloat after getting into a land dispute with the Indian government. His father decides to sell the Zoo’s animals in America and transplant his family to Canada. Pi soon finds himself aboard a freight ship with a surly crew, numerous animals, and a brewing storm. As that brewing storm breaks the ship sinks and Pi is left on a life boat with an orangutan, hyena, zebra, and Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. From here Pi must learn to coexist with his new cohorts and try to sail his way back to dry land.
For a two-hour film mostly set on a life boat with one speaking character Life of Pi is a consistently engaging film that never bores and strays close to pretension without ever falling in. Despite the narration this is a film told through images not through words and what gorgeous images they are. My eyes have never been treated to such exquisite visual excitement before. Whether the sea is raging in a storm, still and reflecting a sunset, or glowing with bioluminescence at night it is a glorious canvas on which the film is told. With Pi’s cohorts being wild beasts there is extensive use of CGI to flesh out the cast but the animals are without exception photo-realistic and wholly believable. So much care has been taken with the visuals this film makes Avatar look like a rough sketch in comparison.
With such a heavy reliance on imagery the choice to use 3D was a risky one. So often 3D is used in a distracting or unnecessary way and while Life of Pi does not have the smooth 3D of The Hobbit director Ang Lee has used the extra dimension to greater effect. My major problem with films using 3D is that they don’t seem to shoot the film with the medium in mind. Shots are too short, the camera is all over the place, and objects are rarely completely in frame or coming out of the screen. So often with 3D the fear of being seen as tacky overrides the desire to utilise effects that can be achieved. Lee does not make this mistake; even as the freight ship is sinking he manages to keep control of the camera and uses bold sweeps rather that shaky edits.
In numerous scenes Lee keeps all the objects, be it a person swimming underwater or a boat sitting on a calm sea, fully inside the frame. This allows the eye to see them as fully 3D objects without various bits being cut off at the edge of the screen. Lee is also bold enough to have animals occasionally peer out of the screen. The last time I saw this was as a child at Disneyworld in Florida. This was a time when 3D was a spectacle – something to take notice of amd an effect worth having as an integral part of the film rather than just as an aside. The reason horror films are normally the place I allow for 3D is because they aren’t afraid to seem gimmicky and it is refreshing to see a similar approach in an Oscar-worthy film. There’s a lot to learn about how to shoot for 3D here.
This is a beautiful film with a big emotional journey at its heart. All the visuals would be for nothing without the amazingly strong performance at its core by Suraj Sharma as Pi. We see Pi at various ages but it is Sharma’s portrayal as a young boy all at sea with a small zoo that holds the film together and is the one vital component. Sharma has no other roles to his name making this possibly the best debut I have ever seen. And he’s five years younger than me. The bastard.
Where the film could do with losing some excess baggage is with adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) and his conversation with an American writer (Rafe Spall). While it is their conversation that forms the film’s narration when the film cuts from the endless aching beauty of the sea adventure back to their conversation in suburbia I found myself painfully pulled out of a cinematic trance and my disbelief struggled to remain suspended. Spall’s character also acts a little too heavy handedly as the voice of the audience when he spells out the film’s message in its closing scene. We got the point without being shown it directly.
Your eyes won’t get a better treat in the cinema for a good long while and 3D have never been used better.
Life of Pi is on general release in the UK from 20th December 2012. Go see it.