“Life of Pi”
Puts a Tiger
In the Tank
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Remember that old short story, “The Lady or the Tiger”? A choice between futures. Well, director Ang Lee doesn’t give Pi a choice, stranding him on a lifeboat with a snarling tiger.
Based on the bestselling fantasy novel by Yann Martel, Lee has converted “The Life of Pi” into a big-screen extravaganza that dazzles the eye and engages the mind. It’s currently astounding audiences at the Tropic Cinema.
In it, an Indian boy named Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel survives 227 days after the sinking of a ship carrying zoo animals, trapped on a small boat with a Bengal tiger. More than just a seafaring adventure yarn, the film is ultimately a contemplation on spirituality … and practicality.
“The tiger is not your friend!” admonishes the boy’s zookeeper father. “Animals don’t think like we do; people who forget that get themselves killed!”
Lee picked Suraj Sharma, a New Delhi teenager with no previous acting experience, to play Pi.
Ang Lee has made fearless film choices over his 20-year career, jumping from genre to genre. Examples range from Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” to the chop-socky “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” from the comic-book-inspired “Hulk” to those gay cowboys in “Brokeback Mountain.” He won an Academy Award as Best Director for “Brokeback Mountain.”
“Life of Pi” was not an easy movie to make – filming on water, in 3-D, from an acclaimed book, and with a CGI-created tiger as co-star. Not to mention tackling a subtle religious theme.
“I thought you can’t make a movie about religion but it can be a movie about the value of storytelling and how that brings structure and wisdom to life,” says Lee. “This is a coming-of-age story. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”
A fan of the book, US President Barak Obama has described “Life of Pi” as “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.”
The book won the $77,500 Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the Asian/Pacific American Awards for Literature in Best Adult Fiction for years 2001-2003.
Turns out, author Yan Martel “stole” the plot from a novel called “Max and the Cats” by prolific Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar, his a story about a Jewish refugee crossing the Atlantic with a jaguar. Dr. Scliar decided not to sue and Martel acknowledges him as inspiration in editions of “Life of Pi.”
Martel claims he got the idea from a critique of Dr. Scliar’s book by John Updike. He says Updike’s description of the book had “the effect on my imagination of electric caffeine.” However, Updike says he never heard of the book and wrote no review of it.
“Life of Pi” has gone on to sell more than seven million copies. And form the basis of this $70-million motion picture by Ang Lee.
“I’m like Pi,” say the director. “I feel adrift over the Pacific. There are lots of confusions, constant surprises. There are times you feel defeated. You feel like your faith is being tested. When you’re on the ocean, it’s spiritual. I look at God and ask, ‘Why?’ But it’s a happy why.”
One critic notes, “Pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technologies, Lee has made a new kind of picture, in which the scientific and artistic elements of filmmaking are so advanced and sophisticated that they blend into a coherent and unified vision.”
But forget about technological challenges. More to the point, Ang Lee has knowingly defied that old show biz adage of “Never work with children or animals.” And pulled it off.