"Life of Pi," like the recent "Cloud Atlas," is adapted from a novel widely considered to be unfilmable. While in "Cloud Atlas" the issue was the book's multistory structure, in "Life of Pi" the problem is of a technical nature — the two main characters are a teenager and a fearsome Bengal tiger who share a lifeboat in the middle of nowhere for 227 days. How do you film that convincingly without running through a lot of teenagers?
Way back when, such a challenge would have been met with clever cutting, rear projection, and/or a really well-trained animal — none of which would pass muster by today's high-tech standards. Director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) has relied heavily on the highest of high-tech methods — massive CGI, motion capture and 3-D.
Yann Martel's book was a huge commercial and critical success, so it's wise that Lee has chosen to follow its story closely (though, by necessity, in a trimmed-down form). Our hero is Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma and, as an adult, Irrfan Khan), a 16-year-old eccentric, whose family runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India. Pi is spiritually eclectic: He sees no reason why he can't be Christian, Muslim and Hindu all at once. “Thank Lord Krishna,” he exclaims when he discovers Catholicism, “for leading me to Jesus!”
The family decides to relocate themselves (and the zoo) to Canada, but during the voyage their shabby-looking ship sinks, killing everybody but Pi and a handful of animals. Pi makes his way to a lifeboat, as do a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger who (thanks to a clerical error) is named Richard Parker. Nature, of course, has its laws of predation, and soon the passenger list is down to Pi and Richard Parker. Some kind of symbiotic relationship seems to develop between them ... or is it between Pi and the anthropomorphic persona he is projecting onto the beast?
In this regard, the setup is much like Robert Zemeckis' “Cast Away,” which employed a tougher, more daring version of the same dilemma. Sure, Lee is able to build an emotionally believable relationship between a human and a tiger, but Zemeckis managed to do the same thing with a volleyball.
What Lee brings to the party, however, is an amazing visual style. In between the moments of conflict, the lifeboat is surrounded by beautiful seascapes and skies. This presumably CGI world has the richness of the Technicolor films of the '30s and '40s. (The closing credits include more than 600 special- and visual-effects people.) And the tiger is remarkably real — which is even more amazing, given that fur is one of the most difficult effects to achieve on a computer.
Is the 3-D worth it? Indeed, it goes alongside “Avatar” and “Hugo” as the most valid recent uses of the technology. It's very discreet — so discreet that halfway through I stopped noticing it. In fact, no matter how well done it is, I have a suspicion that the film would have been just as effective without it.
The only questionable aspect of the production (and the novel) is the spiritual/religious tone in which it's framed. There's a delicate balance between cosmic wisdom and fuzzy-headed New Age-ism; and “Life of Pi” comes awfully close to tipping in the latter direction.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).