Every once in a long while, the right director comes across the right project at just the right moment, and things so often discordant fall into perfect harmony. The director has mastered the shiny technology the story needs – without that mastery, the book could never make the transition from page to screen. Just as important, the story offers the director the deeper themes he craves – without such depth, the film could never make its own leap from entertainment to art. When this happens, this rare confluence, the cinematic bar seems to wiggle free from its fixed notch. And the bar gets raised, along with our spirits, because we're reminded of how joyous movie-watching can be, the sheer and transporting wonder.
So it is with Ang Lee and Life of Pi.
Yann Martel's Booker-winning novel is itself a clever confluence of many elements: It's a ripping lost-at-sea yarn; it's a Kipling-esque fable about a boy and a tiger; it's a tragic insurance report; it's a meditation on reason versus religion, psychology versus myth; and it's a story about the nature of storytelling, an exercise in magic realism where the magic competes with the realism over the question of belief. That's a whole lot for one book and, you would think, way too much for one movie. Yet here's the marvel: Lee doesn't just capture the novel; he enhances it. How?
Two big reasons, but more about that later. For now, let's quickly summarize the narrative, which unfolds in the memory of a wise man who endured. In his Montreal kitchen, the middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his strange tale to a writer-friend. He begins with his childhood in French India, an impressionable boy living at the zoo managed by his unimpressionable father. He moves on to their planned emigration, family and animals alike, on board a Japanese freighter bound for Canada. But the ship sinks in a violent storm. Pi, then a teenager, finds sanctuary on a lifeboat, where he's joined by the only other survivor: Richard Parker in name, a ferocious Bengal tiger in truth. He concludes with the denouement, where investigators from the freighter's insurance company query him in a Mexican hospital.
Enter Lee, whose résumé points to a crucial pair of skills for the task. In Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain, he proved himself acutely sensitive to family dynamics and their underlying psychodrama. But in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he flashed his visual flair and kinetic gifts. Quickly and efficiently, then, Lee is able to sketch the dynamics of the childhood section, especially the quiet yet palpable tension between father and son. Entranced by all religious mythologies, little Pi embraces an ultra-holy trinity of beliefs – Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, they've all got great stories to tell. By contrast, Dad is a scientist and a rationalist. "Why not start with reason?" he argues, and then, feeding a terrified goat to the ravenous Bengal cat, reasonably demonstrates to his delicate boy that "A tiger is not your friend." The lesson is learned and the themes are introduced – rather dramatically, so is Richard Parker.
Of course, the sea tale is the extended centrepiece of the movie and, thanks to Lee's adroit handling of cinema's newest tools – for once, technology is a slave to plot and not vice versa – these sequences explode off the screen. His use of 3-D is dazzling, the best and most organic in any film to date. The storm: Mountainous waves reach out to engulf us while, underwater, roiling currents writhe and seethe. The morning after: In the dawn's light, the becalmed ocean is a vast mirror with white clouds dancing on its still surface. The days and weeks after: Beguiling scene follows beguiling scene, as the phosphorescent sea glows under moonbeams, as whales breach and sharks circle and an entire air force of silver fish flies.
And don't forget Richard Parker, the virtual tiger. Here, the paradox of computer-generated imagery precisely complements the thematic paradox in the novel – that magic makes for the most compelling realism, or, in the case of CGI, that the wizardry of a wired computer makes for a really credible flesh-and-blood beast, convincingly ferocious and undeniably scary, but vulnerable and poignant too. Yet none of this would work without the human counterpoint to these technical marvels, and this is where Suraj Sharma shines as Pi the survivalist. Perhaps because he's a neophyte actor, there's a wide-eyed purity to his performance, which makes him an ideal surrogate for the equally wide-eyed audience. Like us, he's simultaneously trapped in and awed by the unfolding spectacle.
The denouement, as brisk as the prelude, brings that spectacle back to earth again. There, in the narrow eyes of the insurance investigators, a fable cannot be a report, a lifeboat cannot be an ark, and Richard Parker certainly cannot be a tiger. So mythic drama gives way to psychological drama, and the two stories compete for our belief. Embedded in the ending is a choice. But in the beginning was the word, which, as pronounced by the wise creator of tales, promised a yarn that "would make you believe in God." Maybe, maybe not, but for those who pray at a lesser altar, this much is sure: Lifeof Pi will definitely restore your faith in the divine magic of the movies.