Dir: Ang Lee
With: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Runtime: 127 minutes
AS a director, Ang Lee is a consummate magician, able to conjure up delight from seemingly nowhere. In Sense and Sensibility he breathed life into tired old England's Jane once more; in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon he made martial arts look like ballet; and in Brokeback Mountain he turned the concept of cowboys on its Stetson-clad head.
Perhaps his finest trick, however, lies in what he has done with Life of Pi. Yann Martel's Man Booker-winning novel, published by Edinburgh's Canongate, was long considered an unfilmable work. Serious yet light as a dewdrop, fantastical when the fashion was for realism, it was a book that fluttered like a butterfly across many a filmmaker's mind, only to depart on the next wind when something more manageable came along.
Lee has taken up the dare and triumphed with a film that is as moving as it is beautiful. It is hard to imagine any fan of the book being disappointed with Lee's Life of Pi. Equally, it will send many in the direction of the novel. Wherever you start from, you will likely leave the cinema in a happier place. This seasonal deal is not available in any good bookshop or toyshop: it is only in the cinema.
Only in the cinema because Life of Pi is presented in 3D, a method new to Lee but one to which he has taken like a big cat to a crimson steak. As he introduces a cast that has more animals in it than humans, and later on serves up gorgeous image after stunning vision, for once you will see the point of 3D (even if the higher ticket prices remain a mystery).
The introductions take place during a long opening scene – perhaps too long for those keen to get a wriggle on – set in the zoo in Pondicherry, India, run by the Patel family. Here be dragon-like creatures, exotic birds, giraffes, elephants, and enough four-legged wonders to grace an Attenborough documentary. The boy lucky enough to live in such an Eden is Piscine Molitor Patel, who opts to call himself Pi in recognition of his mathematical ability and playground teasing. Pi is a thoughtful boy, drawn to any religion that crosses his path. Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism – the more the merrier, except nothing seems to make him truly merry.
The family as a whole is not too happy with dad's decision to sail to Canada to start a new life, but off they go, taking some of the animals with them. It is during this voyage that a terrible accident occurs, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker, so named after a mix-up with the paperwork.
All of this is related in flashback from contemporary Canada where a writer, played by Rafe Spall, is investigating a fantastic story he once heard about a boy sharing a lifeboat with a tiger. Can it really be true?
As the tale unfolds, Lee's film moves from marvellous and whimsical to terrifying, wonderfully funny and plain old thrilling. A director with less confidence in his material, or in his ability to do it justice, might have shied away from spending so long on the lifeboat, fearing the audience would get bored. But Lee, his young hero, played by Suraj Sharma (his first film but he is terrific), and the mostly computer-generated Richard Parker, make being adrift on the ocean seem the most exciting place to be on Earth.
Which it is, of course, because this is the greatest show of all, the struggle to survive. The trials of Pi – hunger, thirst, fear, storms, and Richard Parker above all – are biblical in nature, and as he drifts ever onwards we, and he, wonder how much more he can take of this existence.
But Lee, like Martel, continues to unearth layer after layer of the boy's experience. The youngster is being put to the test, and far from looking out just for himself he learns how to get along with the beast that would happily have him for breakfast. "Tending to his needs gives my life purpose," concludes Pi.
It is possible to take Lee's Life of Pi on many different levels, as a simple adventure story, or something deeper and more spiritual. Lee does not stint on either front. He can have you gasping with fright one moment, laughing the next and lost in contemplation after that. Nothing feels forced, or manufactured to move the story on. This is filmmaking that flows as naturally and rhythmically as the sea on which the drama takes place.
Apart from Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, A Mighty Heart) and Gerard Depardieu, there are no well-kent faces. It is largely a boy, a tiger, a boat and a director setting course for somewhere thrilling. Send a message in a bottle: this is a magical delight.