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Travers: You Just Don’t Watch ‘Life Of Pi’, You Live It

Ang Lee’s use of 3D to tell the story is absolutely thrilling

Peter Travers Nov 23, 2012
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[easyreview cat1title=”Life Of Pi” cat1rating=”3.5″]

Surraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan

Directed by Ang Lee

Yann Martel’s 2001 book, a bestseller that has since morphed into a passionate global cult, concerns an Indian boy trapped for 227 days at sea in a lifeboat with a starving Bengaltiger. How do you transform the literal and metaphorical sides of the tale into cinema? You call Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, who turns the book into a magnificent and moving film. Lee’s use of 3D to tell the story is absolutely thrilling. Like Hugo, from Martin Scorsese, Life of Pi puts 3D in the hands of a world class film artist. Lee uses 3D with the delicacy and lyricism of a poet. You don’t just watch this movie, you live it.

Every sight and sound is astounding, especially when you consider that the tiger is a digital creation. That puts enormous pressure on the actor who must react to a beast that isn’t there. To play Pi, Lee chose the inexperienced Suraj Sharma, then 17, who returns the favor by giving a fine, fearless performance that consistently rings true. Pi’s journey is perilous, from the moment his zookeeper parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu) leave the serenity of their lives inPondicherry,India, and board a ship toCanadato start a new life. Pi, who claims to be Hindu, Christian and Muslim, finds his faith tested when the ship goes down ”“ in a scene of beauty and terror ”“ drowning everyone but Pi, a zebra, an orangutan, a shrieking hyena and the tiger named Richard Parker for the hunter who captured him. Sharing one lifeboat reminds Pi of a lesson he learned on land about the mistake of treating a wild animal as human. The code of survival of the fittest leaves Richard Parker alone on the lifeboat, forcing Pi to shift for himself on a raft he ties alongside.

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Working from a fluid script by David Magee (Finding Neverland), Lee frames the film with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). Khan (Slumdog Millionaire, The Namesake) is a supremely gifted actor who uses his expressive eyes to suggest a haunting and brutal alternative to what we are seeing. His presence is crucial in this PG-rated film that shields a family audience from the full extent of Pi’s torment. And yet Lee, with the indispensable help of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, invades the mind through eyes that are dazzled.

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