As special effects continue to develop, more and more 'unfilmable' books become ripe for the big screen. Yawn Martel's Life of Pi is one such example of this. Martel's popular novel has always been perfect cinema material. But his story of a young Indian boy, Pi, and a tiger trapped on a lifeboat for several months naturally required some seriously advanced CGI. It was just a matter of time...
Well, now the computers have finally caught up and Ang Lee has accepted the challenge of the adaptation. The effects are utterly convincing and at no point does Martel's stowaway tiger look anything but real. The same can also be said of the zebra, hyena and orang-utan who are all equally important characters in Pi's story. If they were handled badly then all would have been lost but the sophistication of their animation ensures that we can focus on the drama and not the CGI.
The same cannot be said of the various backdrops. The sunsets, sunrises, starry skies and phosphorescent sea-life are all so brightly-coloured and over-the-top that they look fake... which of course they are. Naturally, they look beautiful and Lee has put together some stunning shots. But they do feel a little cartoon-ish.
Then again, this might have been Lee's intention due to the ambiguous nature of Pi's tale. If you believe it to be a fairy tale concocted by Pi to protect himself from the harsh reality of his experience then the surreal backgrounds are a very clever inclusion. Lee is therefore presenting Pi's story through a rose-tinted lens, like Pi himself.
Performance-wise, Suraj Sharma is a very likeable and believable Pi, handling the humour and the heartbreak with equal confidence. All of this is even more impressive when you consider that he was acting opposite imaginary characters and surroundings for most of his shooting schedule. The older Pi, veteran actor Irrfan Khan, is just as emotive, particularly when discussing his parting with the tiger.
Adaptation-wise, there are very few omissions, although the scene with the Japanese insurance men, a comical highlight of the novel, is sadly shortened. Meanwhile, the addition of a love interest for Pi is both short-lived and pointless.
The biggest missed opportunity occurs near the end when Pi recounts the alternative, less-magical version of his story. This would have been the perfect moment to offer flashbacks featuring the human stowaways, instead of their animal counterparts, but instead this is narrated with a long monologue and no cutaways. It seemed like a bizarre decision, considering the film spends time introducing the French chef and kind Japanese sailor. Possibly Lee's hands were tied by the studio and their desire for a PG rating.
Also, it is hard to predict the longevity of such a film. There is a serious lack of re-watchability when it comes to films predominantly involving just one actor and one location. After all, how many people have seen 127 Hours or Buried more than once?
Nevertheless, Life of Pi is set to be a contender during award season, due to Ang Lee's involvement and the challenges involved in making the adaptation. Indeed, it has already received Golden Globe nominations for Best Film, Best Director and Best Score and no doubt Oscar nominations will follow.
2013 could be the year of the tiger.