Lee has filled his film with visual wonders. The opening credits unspool against a life action version of the opening of The Lion King: elephants, birds, lizards, snakes, giraffes...and the reflection of a giant tiger in the water. There are miraculous sea-storms of flying fish, deep nights illuminated by phosphorescent jellyfish. A giant whale leaps into the sky, drenching a lifeboat. Ten of thousands of meerkats poke up their heads in unison. A bizarre and wild island glows with poison death. And the sun-burnt, salt-water-crusted face of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his wide, dark sparkling eyes, take it all in. Sharma excels. With its story of solitude, this is a film that rests of the shoulder of its lead. He's mesmerizing in the title role. This is an amazingly talented and expressive young actor to watch.
Not only visually beautiful, Life of Pi is also spiritually invigorating. Pi's quest for God in nature (and the nature of God) is a fine story from a powerful novel, and in the hands of any merely talented director, would have made a fine movie. Ang Lee uses the nature of film itself to bring us on Pi's odyssey, with inventive scene dissolves from the adult Pi narrating the storywe are never in doubt that he survives, but how?to the young castaway Pi. Lee tightens and condenses the lengthy (if instructive) Pondicherry sequences of the novel without sacrificingindeed enhancingthe import of the story. A movie that spends three-quarters of its running time in a lifeboat with two characters (one of them big and fuzzy) and yet captivates both in narrative and visuals.
And it's in 3D. No, don't walk away yet. I'm no snob about 3D (The Avengers was just dandy), but there's seldom a point to it beyond gimmickry and the ability to charge five bucks more for a screening. Trust me: you want to strap on the plastic glasses for this one. Life of Pi suffers none of the usual darkness and fogginess of many recent 3D films. Its bright, sharp images sparkle and show off the technology like a grand World's Fair technological exhibit. Unlike most other recent 3D films, the effect is used dramatically to physically define the space of a twenty-six foot long lifeboat and the separation between Pi and Richard Parker, the tiger marooned with him. They spend much of the movie warily staking off their ends of the boat from each other; Pi jabs a pole at Richard Parker (and at us). The breathtaking underwater sequences, both in Pi's childhood as an adept swimmer and in his tumbles underwater in the Pacific set boat, surface, fish and Pi on different, distinct planes. In Lee's transitions between scenes the background dissolves and recedes physically. Flying fish pummel us straight on even as they batter Pi and the tiger. So find the theater showing it in 3D, and pay the extra bucks. 3D enhances the golden sunset hues, deep blue sea, and the dark gaze of the tiger.
Even Sharma's eyes are big, bright and have depth to them. As a child, his mother tells him the story of Krishna, who opened his mouth to show his mother it contained the universe. Adrift at sea, Pi hallucinates that he sees the universe in the bindi of his young girlfriend in India. When Lee focuses the camera on Sharma, can we see the universe in his eyes? Or is that simply the movie camera? And if we can see the camera, can not we see God...the creator of this universe, Ang Lee...as well?
This is a film full of both small and grand beauties. Make a promise to yourself now to go see Life of Pi, and be filled with wonder.
Life of Pi opens the 50th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 28; it opens nationally November 21, 2012.