Genius is not a word that should be used lightly. It should be reserved for the truly extraordinary, the transcendent individuals that push boundaries and open the world to new possibilities. Director Ang Lee is a genius. His film adaptation of Yann Martel's epic fantasy novel, Life of Pi, is simply astonishing. It reminds us that imagination and artistry have no limit in the right hands. Lee has taken the most impossible of stories and given it life. Life of Pi is adventure on a grand scale; easily the most technically advanced film of 2012. But beyond the stupefying special effects, it is a story of faith and perseverance that anyone can relate to.
Life of Pi is told in flashback by the adult Piscine Patel (Irrfan Kahn), as he prepares dinner for an inquisitive writer (Rafe Spall). The younger Piscine (Suraj Sharma) abhors his name. Growing up in a botanical garden turned zoo in Pondicherry, India; he concocts a clever scheme to shorten his name and stop the merciless taunting from the other children. His parents, a spiritual mother and atheist father, have vastly different views of the world. Pi, seeking to bridge the gap between his parents' faiths, baffles them further by becoming an ardent student of all religions. This quest to understand the nature of God becomes more pressing when his father decides the family will sell the zoo and move to Canada. They pack up the animals for sale and embark on a long sea voyage. What happens next is both tragic and incredible. Pi survives an unthinkable catastrophe, only to be stranded on a lifeboat with the zoo's Bengal tiger, the oddly named Richard Parker.
Pi's ocean odyssey with Richard Parker is phenomenal to see. The visual effects in this movie are mind boggling. You sit there, completely entranced, 3D glasses glued to your face, wondering, how on earth did they make this film? Life of Pi has this dreamlike quality, where even though everything looks real, the scope of what you are seeing confounds the senses utterly. The film captures the fantasy aspect of the novel perfectly. It is a true escape from reality. Many critics are comparing Life of Pi to Avatar. That comparison makes sense to a point. Both films are brilliantly made and flawless in execution. The difference is the setting. Avatar is a science fiction film on another world. Life of Pi is very much in our sphere. Everything you see exists here and is normal. The difference is the circumstance. Convincing audiences that a boy and tiger can survive together on the open ocean is a magnificent feat.
Lee's particular gift as a director is his uncanny ability to explore peculiar bonds. He's done this with remarkable skill in most of his previous work. The homosexual cowboy romance in Brokeback Mountain, the slave fighting for the south in Ride with the Devil, the suburban couples engaging in key parties in The Ice Storm; these stories are not that different from the relationship with Pi and Richard Parker. They are such an unlikely pair, but wholly dependent on each others survival. Life of Pi has a few twists that may seem off putting at first, but when you think about the journey that Pi takes, the conclusion that the writer comes to at the end is fitting. Ang Lee is not the director that spoon feeds you a story. He's too cerebral for convention. This gives him the capability to effortlessly move between film genres. It's a rare breed of filmmaker that would be up to the challenge and scale of this story.
It's important to note that Life of Pi is not without fault. I thought the scenes with the adult Pi and the writer were unnecessary. They serve a purpose to draw the philosophical conclusion at the end. I think this could have been done in the context of the primary story. It would have required more abstract thought from the audience, but I do believe they would have been able to make that leap. That minor critique aside, the film is audacious, resoundingly good. It is another feather in the cap of a bonafide, dare I say it again, genius.