Ang Lee has an enviable track record with adaptations – Sense And Sensibility, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain are all exceptional films. And the director continues that form with Life Of Pi. It may not meet the challenge set by its narrator – of telling a story that will make one believe in God – but it is an absorbing, often wondrous experience.
Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel offers the most difficult source material Lee has yet tackled. He's not only had to put aside WC Fields's warning never to work with children and animals, but also any remaining trauma caused by his previous attempt to combine live action with computer animation, the misbegotten Hulk.
It opens in Canada, in the present, where the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) has been recommended to a writer in search of stories. It seems that Pi has a corker, of his own life, which he begins to narrate.
Born Piscine Molitor Patel in Pondicherry, French India, named after a swimming pool and worn down by his nickname "Pissing Patel", the boy goes to great lengths to reposition himself as "Pi". This adaptability extends to religion, Pi adding both Christianity and Islam to his Hinduism, much to the chagrin of his father. As the older Pi observes, "faith is a home with many rooms, with doubt on every floor"; whatever its form, his own faith will be severely challenged.
Pi spends many childhood hours in the zoo run by his parents. When the Patels decide to close the zoo and emigrate to Canada, the family sets sail on a Japanese cargo ship, which also carries some of their animals to new homes. And the initially light-hearted tone of the film changes dramatically.
Lee's use of 3D, which has so sumptuously captured the Pondicherry scenes, now depicts the storm that changes Pi's life in a manner that leaves one's heart in one's mouth. As the ship is pulled into the ocean, the boy is thrown into a lifeboat; the image of him peering beneath the waves as the ship glides down to the depths, his family within it, is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and more impressive than anything we saw in Titanic.
And so the 17-year-old (now played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) finds himself lost at sea, sharing the lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal Tiger. The laws of the jungle quickly apply, leaving just boy and cat onboard. Pi's battle to survive the elements, starvation and the tiger begins.
Given the scarcity of characters and the confined location, Lee and his scriptwriter David Magee (who wrote Neverland, the lovely account of JM Barrie's creation of Peter Pan) work wonders – not only to keep our attention, but to have an iron grip on it. Sharma is a terrific find, portraying Pi's gamut of emotions and growing resourcefulness with total assurance, and the CGI/live action creation of the animal, without which the story couldn't be told, is beyond belief; the young actor and the technical wizards, marshalled by Lee, do what I hadn't thought possible in bringing this book to the screen.
For me this is primarily a story about storytelling itself. As the cargo ship's vile chef, Gerard Depardieu is on screen for the briefest time, but his characterisation is still vivid and relevant at the end of the film, when the older Pi will offer a different version of the story he's just concluded. Whichever one is true is a question that turns a magical yarn into a deeply thoughtful and moving one.