Considered by many to be unfilmable (M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuarón and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all had a crack and passed) Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger HIdden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) has seemingly done the impossible with a film so beautiful you could literally freeze frame any scene and hang it on your wall. Only with todays digital film making techniques could a film like this be made possible.
The story is told by a now middle-aged Pi to a writer (Rafe Spall) in present-day Montreal that bookends the film. A story that starts in Pondicherry, India, where Piscine Patel (named after a French swimming pool) is compelled to change his name to a mathematical constant in order to avoid persistent bullying and lives with his family in a Zoo. As the zoo struggles for funding, the Patel family decide to move to Canada where they'll sell their animals and start a new life. On route a brutal storm sinks the ship carrying them to their new home and leaves Pi adrift in a lifeboat with his zoological companions.
The storm scene is a particular stand out and can proudly sit alongside anything you might have seen in your disaster blockbuster. As the camera flows in a seemingly single shot from the flooded bowels of the ship, to the wave battered decks above, to Pi leaping into a lifeboat which swiftly plummets into the squalling seas thanks to a fractious zebra. It’s impossible to see the joins.
From there the flat ocean provides Lee with his blank canvas, who along with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and incredible effects team present us with such spectacular imagery as a whale looming up through waters full of glowing jellyfish, to motionless water creating a perfect mirror image of the sky above. Lee uses 3D – a tool many directors wield like a sledgehammer – in much the same way James Cameron did with Avatar and Martin Scorsese did with Hugo. Like those directors, Lee utilises 3D to give a sense of depth akin to theatrical staging rather than thrusting objects into the audience to justify the extra ticket price. But all this beauty is not merely for beauty’s sake.
Belief is at the story's core, which could come across as preachy but it truly isn't. Throwing out questions, rather than pretending to have the answers. In one scene Pi explains exactly why he chooses to believe in all gods, from all religions – it's about believing in something, be it God or science. Just as with magic, it depends whether you like your tricks explained or prefer to believe in the mystery.
It is also worth mentioning that this is Suraj Sharma's first film role. Three actors played Pi at various ages but while each is worthy of high praise, Sharma as the teenage Pi is unforgettable. Whether screaming in fury or saying nothing at all, he never hits a false note. You also have to remember for about three quarters of the film he is playing to nothing. At least, it must be assumed that he is. Placing a young actor on a small lifeboat with a live Bengal Tiger is a health and safety issue apparently. Although the effects work on the tiger is astonishing there is surely a real tiger used in some scenes though it would take a very well trained eye to pick it out.
These are all impressive pieces in one beautiful unified puzzle.
Lee is showing the world around us through the possibilities of cinema to create a visual magic trick that asks us to believe in the impossible.