Film review: Life of Pi (PG)

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is on general release from Friday
Ang Lee's Life of Pi is on general release from Friday
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I DON’T love 3D; the novelty of being part of a bespectacled audience that looks like a Two Ronnies tribute is long past, but Ang Lee’s Life Of Pi has some beautiful images right from the start as exotic creatures scamper around Pondicherry Zoo.

Life Of Pi (PG)

Director: Ang Lee

Running time: 127 minutes


It’s a gentle beginning to a film that looks as good as Avatar or Hugo, but ultimately feels more satisfying.

The story of Pi is told by an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) who ­relates an unbelievable and harrowing tale of survival to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). Growing up, his full name was Piscine Patel, shortened to Pi when his classmates started to take the Piscine out of his full name. The zoo belongs to Pi’s family, and one of their prize exhibits is a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, after a clerical error.

When the recession hits, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) is forced to sell up and emigrate to Canada with his family and the animals, but their ocean liner is caught in a cataclysmic storm, and the only survivors sharing space on a 27ft lifeboat are young Pi (Suraj Sharma), an injured ­zebra, an opportunistic hyena, and a grieving orang­utan. Eventually they are also joined by a hungry maddened Richard Parker. Parents beware: this may be rated PG, but it is no Disney adventure, and eventually Richard and Pi are the only ones left standing, forced to eyeball each other, starvation and survival in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

I’m reluctant to say much more about plot, especially if you haven’t read Yann Martel’s original Booker-winning novel, but if this all sounds rather ­artificial and unlikely, be reassured that this is slightly the point.

Meanwhile, Ang Lee has a grand time conjuring a seasick tiger, whales, an island teeming with meerkats and a volley of flying fish. Yet, unlike Jackson’s Hobbitathon, Pi doesn’t feel like a slave to ­visual technology. It’s a clever and dynamic story that is a thrill to watch as it unfolds, but has a sting in the tail of its story that may chase you all the way home. It’s a ripping yarn, a ­fable about madness, a meditation on belief and a life-affirming story about storytelling. Even the lumpy cuts to the present day with Rafe Spall earnestly pulling faces like the Five Fry’s Boy eventually have a pay-off.

Meanwhile, props go to Sharma, who spent most of his time emoting to empty spaces, because instead of subjecting him to a carnivorous animal actors’ studio, all of the wildlife are products of motion capture, although rendered so lifelike that you might be persuaded to check the credits for animal trainers. Sharma is a good find; natural, funny and with a vitality that helps the movie when it looks like being becalmed.

It’s been trumpeted widely as a film about belief, but you can pick your own points to ponder. At the very least, it makes you think about the alliances and pacts we make with ourselves when we need to survive. It also marks a return to form for Lee, whose last film was the irritatingly woozy Taking Woodstock. He’s always been an austere director of grand emotion – the moment Heath Ledger finds Jake Gyllenhaal’s shirt in a closet in Brokeback Mountain, or the pent-up longing of Emma Thompson in Sense And Sensibility – but Life Of Pi is a new kind of high ­water mark for him, a beautifully realised journey that goes right off the map.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot

On general release from Friday