Directors have had mixed success adapting fantastical, challenging literary novels for the big screen. Just a few years ago, Peter Jackson tried to adapt Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones using oceans of computer-generated psychedelia, and he face-planted. More recently, the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer threw money at the screen to try and encompass David Mitchell's baroque Cloud Atlas, and achieved something that it's hard to love without reservations.
And now, Ang Lee has adapted Yann Martel's celebrated-but-unfilmable novel Life of Pi.... and the result is pretty darn good. It might be the second most visually astonishing fantasy movie of the year, after The Hobbit.
Oh, and there won't be any major spoilers in this review. If you're the sort of person who refuses to watch movie trailers because they give away too much, then you should quit reading now. Everybody else, read on without fear.
The comparison to Peter Jackson's Lovely Bones kept popping into my head as I watched Life of Pi. Both films attempt to portray something spiritual and transcendent on screen, using vast amounts of CG. Basically, trying to put the "magic" into "industrial light and magic." In Jackson's film, the afterlife becomes a candy-coated digital wonderland, in which the unreality of digital graphics is meant to underscore the amazement of life after death... and the whole thing quickly collapses under its own weight, like a sugar castle with vaulted ceilings.
In Life of Pi, though, the digital wonderland is just aimed at making you believe in one boy in a boat, with one tiger (and for a while, a few other animals.) And even though the water and the sky and the random flying fish and whales and other critters do help to create the overall sense of wonder, the tiger is really where the "spiritual" weight of the film rests. And the tiger is where Ang Lee puts most of his energy and credibility. The good news? The tiger is absolutely lovely and hypnotic to watch — and quite possibly more charismatic than the main human in the film, the perfectly engaging and watchable Suraj Sharma.
Here's a pretty neat featurette, showing all of the effort that went into creating a real-seeming, living tiger on a boat, using mostly computer animation. The tiger is basically this film's Hulk, or Woola, or Appa. Thousands of technicians toiled day and night for a year or two to make the tiger's nose just the right kind of pink.
So in Life of Pi, the young Pi Patel sets off on a sea voyage from India to Canada, with his whole family and all of the animals from their defunct zoo. There's a shipwreck, and soon enough Pi is stuck on a boat with just a few escaped animals — chief among them a tiger whimsically named Richard Parker. Is this boat big enough for the two of them? And how is this story going to make you believe in God, as the older Pi Patel tells you it will at the start of the movie in a framing sequence?
Pi himself is sort of reminiscent of the sort of joyful, wide-eyed naif that Robin Williams used to play in his post-Mork days. He gropes towards wisdom in a way that's sort of endearing and sort of obnoxious. Pi's full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, because he's been named after a swimming pool in France, thanks to a swimming-crazed uncle, and Pi goes to great lengths to make his cool mathematical nickname stick. Along with his wacky name, Pi also decides to adopt multiple religions at once: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Early on in the movie, Pi's spiritual mania almost leads to disaster when he tries to feed the tiger, Richard Parker, by hand.
Pi's foolish attempt to get a tiger to eat out of his hand sets up the major question of the film — is this tiger inherently savage and untamable? Even though the tiger is actual a digital artifact, we spend the whole movie trying to figure out what its nature is. Is the tiger good, or evil? Does morality even apply to a semi-wild animal? Can you be friends with a tiger? Or could you tame or train a tiger, especially if you happen to be trapped on a boat with one? Is there really such a thing as good or evil, or are those merely human constructs that are irrelevant to wild carnivores?
In a nutshell, in this film, morality and spirituality are definitely in the eye of the tiger. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
The beauty in this film doesn't just come from the tiger — there's also the insane endless expanse of water, which seems to have different moods and characteristics depending on the weather. Sometimes, you forget that a few yards of ocean are very different from a few yards on land — and something floating just a short distance away from the lifeboat can be hard to reach. The water behaves in a capricious, insane fashion — sometimes as flat as a sheet of glass, sometimes choppy and violent.
And meanwhile, as the film becomes more fanciful, the creatures and vegetation that Pi comes across start showing the kind of bioluminescence previously only found on the moon of Pandora. There are a lot of weird glowing creatures and plants here, to the point where the film starts to look like a weird rave at some point.
And without going into spoiler territory, the movie does spill over the edge into full-on fantasy by the end, as some stuff happens that doesn't really have any reasonable explanation. There is some weird-ass shit out there in the middle of the Pacific.
The aesthetic of the film also benefits immensely from a crafty use of 3D — since Avatar, very few films have used 3D effects as anything more than a gimmick or a cash grab. But Life of Pi pulls off some very neat tricks that pull back the frame and draw you into the picture, while making you feel as though reality, like the film's picture, has layers and depth. And the clever use of depth perception is probably one big reason why the excessively pretty images in the film don't look more cheesy or fake.
How much you like Life of Pi probably depends, to some extent, on your tolerance for New Age noodling. You're put on notice early on, when you learn that Pi belongs to multiple religions and his story will make you believe in God, and the film proceeds to give you what you signed up for. The result is undeniably precious, and a bit twee in parts — but at the same time, there's a definite point to it all. And the questions the film raises about nature and faith are valid and at least sometimes profound.
All of the insane beauty in Life of Pi may feel sterile or distancing after a while, like you can't help noticing that you're witnessing a great technical achievement. But at the same time, as an ornate fantasy that bombards you with the pretty, this film succeeds in raising the bar for other fantasy movies, especially ones which take a "magical realist" approach to mystical stuff. And by the end, you can't help wondering if the movie's nonstop beauty is part of the point — we can't really know what's going through the tiger's heart or mind, or what its purpose is — we can only appreciate whatever beauty we find along the way.
In a nutshell — Life of Pi is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, that transcends its New Agey cuteness and actually raises some neat questions. It's up to you whether that's enough.