David Neary defends Life of Pi‘s Oscar hopes against fiercesome predators as part of our Oscar 2013 Best Picture countdown…


Remember when everyone and their mother was reading Life of Pi? Despite having a cover (and a premise) that made it look like a story you’d read kids off to slumberland with, Yann Martel’s book did remarkable business, selling millions of copies and winning a variety of literary awards. The general consensus amongst fans, however, was that as a story it was ‘unfilmable’, so no one dared attempt a movie version of it until 10 years after it was published.

The word ‘unfilmable’ means nothing to Ang Lee, who has taken countless risks throughout his career, directing films based on the works of both Jane Austen and Stan Lee. Working from a neatly honed script by David Magee (Finding Neverland), Lee has crafted a remarkable fantasy that pulls no philosophical punches while still dazzling the eyes.

Life of Pi tells the story of a young man trapped in a lifeboat for several weeks with a fierce Bengal tiger, but the simplicity of this set-up belies the depth of its subject matter. Pi’s fight for survival, against a fearsome predator on his boat and an ocean of terrors below, addresses some truly human, and some assuredly divine, issues.

Pi’s tale, told to a journalist (Rafe Spall) by the hero in his middle age (Irrfan Khan), is full of allegory and anecdote. From the origins of his own name, to the explanation of how his tiger companion came to be known by the handle ‘Richard Parker’, Life of Pi features the best selection of tall tales since Big Fish. But matters grow more serious, as Pi explains how when his family attempted to move from India to the US, to start over and sell the animals from the zoo they owned, a shipwreck left him the sole human survivor, alone on a raft with only animals for company. Very soon Richard Parker was the only animal left in the raft.

Shot in breathtaking 3D – without doubt the finest use of the toy since its re-emergence in the digital era – Life of Pi shows off all the magic and horror of life at sea. From plunging into the ocean’s depths to encounters with gargantuan whales and tiny flying fish, Lee’s film never avoids boasting its visual spectacle. More objects leap at the screen than in many children’s 3D movies, while cheap tricks such as shrinking the film’s letterboxing to allow creatures to appear like they are leaping through the borders of the screen are employed shamelessly and effectively.

The special effects steal the movie, with the switches between the real tiger playing Richard Parker and his digital double seamless. However, as the teenaged Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma puts in a truly impressive performance, swaying between passion and exhaustion, that makes him a fine flesh-and-blood rival to the dominance of CGI.

The film quite surprisingly gets across all of the book’s ideas without softening much. It addresses the importance of storytelling to both listener and narrator, and raises fascinating questions about the nature of god and belief. Only one sequence in which Pi and Richard Parker find themselves drifting onto a mysterious floating island, populated by swarms of meerkats, feels out of sorts with the flow and themes of the story. But the scenes on this island are so eye-wateringly beautiful it’s hard to criticise them to any great degree.

From the moment the film begins, Life of Pi is a beautiful and playful film. The opening shots of the various animals in Pi’s family’s zoo are overlayed by the title credits, which see the various letters tat make up the filmmakers’ names impersonate the animals on screen. That the film manages to be this beautiful, whimsical and also deep is a remarkable achievement, and it will stand as one of Lee’s finest films.

With 11 Oscar nominations to its name, the possibility of Life of Pi walking away from the Academy Awards empty handed seems truly unlikely, but it is not impossible. With luck, its visual scope and superbly evocative soundtrack by Mychael Danna will win it some accolades on Sunday night.

David Neary


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