Lee soars high with magnificent Life of Pi

Director Ang Lee knows how to tell grand, moving stories rife with poignant imagery and subtlety. He displayed it in his Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which deftly wove romance and epic adventure with breathtaking scenery. Then Lee did it again in Brokeback Mountain, the tragic story of two gay star-crossed lovers that garnered him his second Academy Award, this time for directing.

Lost at sea · In Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, Pi Patel and his tiger, Richard Parker, battle the forces of nature when a freighter ship sinks in the Pacific Ocean. The film uses top-of-the-line CGI effects to create impressive visuals. – | Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox

But Lee has reached serious new heights with Life of Pi, a thrilling adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestselling novel of the same name. It’s indicative of his talent that a director with an eye for shooting beautiful sequences has created his most gorgeous and lush film yet. But as with the novel, the most compelling aspect of Life of Pi is the layers of metaphor and narrative nuance evident in thoughtful details that also make the film one of the best of 2012.

Life of Pi tells the story of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (newcomer Suraj Sharma), a boy raised in Pondicherry, India by parents who own a small zoo. As with the novel, a middle-aged Pi (played by veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan) serves as the narrator; the film sets up the story by introducing a nameless author (Rafe Spall) who is curious about Pi’s tale.

In a series of whimsical episodes, Life of Pi shows its protagonist grow from a precocious youngster to a deeply spiritual and dedicated teenager at peace with his life in Pondicherry. Unfortunately for Pi, his father decides that for financial purposes, the family must move from India to Canada and sell their zoo animals.

It’s a journey that requires loading up on a freighter ship, whose size and seafaring history are reassuring up until the point it mysteriously sinks. Pi is ostensibly the only human to make it out alive, accompanied on a lifeboat by a head-scratching assortment of zoo animals comprising a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and, most significantly, the zoo’s prized Bengal tiger.

The sinking of the freighter, for one, stands as one of the most impressive cinematic disaster sequences in recent memory, both exhilarating and tragic in its disorienting violence; it’s hard not to get chills when the camera frames the silhouette of Pi underwater as he watches the ship slowly fall into the depths of the Pacific.

In fact, it would be fair to suggest that the film would’ve been worth the ticket price just for the visual feast alone. Surreal-looking shots of Pi floating on a beautifully hued, mirrorlike ocean are likely to leave many in the audience slack-jawed; meanwhile, the incredible effects used to animate Richard Parker make it nearly impossible to believe that he’s not a real Bengal, even in extreme close-ups of his bestriped maw.

But Lee extends his vision beyond such obvious shots, weaving the film with surprising visual virtuosity even in moments of quieter backstory exposition. Though the bar was set high by James Cameron’s Avatar, a landmark film for 3-D and CGI technology, Life of Pi shines in how it utilizes both technologies in such naturalistic ways. Both digital techniques look equally at home depicting a dreamy sequence at a French resort as showing a brutal storm at sea, which is a credit to cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Tron: Legacy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and visual effects producer Susan MacLeod.

Life of Pi is so much more than just visuals, however — thanks to Lee’s perfect cast. The supporting actors all carry their weight well; Adil Hussain, who plays Pi’s father, shows off his measured rationality and temper particularly effectively, including in a scene where he shows Pi why he mustn’t ever try to play with Richard Parker.

That brings us to the film’s MVP, Sharma. In an impressive feat of irony, Sharma originally had no plans to audition for the film and even forgot his lines in front of Lee. But it wouldn’t be quite fair to call the young actor a diamond in the rough: Sharma’s already a brilliant gem in Life of Pi, infusing the lead role with raw intensity and charisma. It’s almost shocking to realize Sharma’s lack of experience when watching him break down in desperation while cradling a CGI tiger. Yet he pulls it off time and time again, effectively channeling themes of faith and humanity in times of darkness.

Though Sharma’s pure talent obviously played a huge role in his performance, his success also serves as a testament to Lee’s ability as a director. Lee himself expressed doubt about adapting such an ambitious novel to the screen, especially because of its deep themes and mind-twisting ending. And if there is a fault to the film, it’s that it sometimes feels merely like a beautiful adventure rather than the thought-provoking treatise on existentialism some might desire.

But then again, it just might be a part of Lee’s genius that he has wrapped a deeply insightful essay on humanity in a glittering cascade of visual brilliance. Now the hard part — finding meaning in it all — is left to the viewer.