Shot on location in the former French colony of Pondicherry, India, Life of Pi’s opening section introduces us, via flashback, to Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his spiritually abundant childhood. Various anecdotes pinpoint pivotal moments in his upbringing right up until the fated ocean voyage; the origin of his unusual name and the clever establishment of his nickname, the blossoming of his first romance, and the many life lessons learnt from growing up in a zoo, the most important of which will turn out to be both his tormentor and saviour.
As his father’s dreams of living in a ‘new India’ are dashed by political unrest, Pi’s family decide to sell the zoo and leave India for good. Boarding a Japanese cargo ship with many of their animals in tow, they set off for a better life in Canada. Four days into the journey, however, Pi is awoken by a loud noise in the middle of the night. Realising that a storm is raging outside, he rushes out to the deck to admire Mother Nature. Mere moments later, though, the ship sinks and he finds himself alone in a lifeboat with the oddest of companions; a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and – the former zoo’s most terrifyingly magnificent creature – Richard Parker, the adult Bengal tiger.
Thus begins Pi’s tale of survival, adventure, ingenuity and courage as he grapples with the physical and mental blows of his sorry situation. But his most imminent danger will also prove to be his most fulfilling conquest. His relationship with Richard Parker is superbly crafted and wonderfully executed. His refusal to believe his father’s earlier warning that the tiger's emotions are just a projection of his own (and which later spawns a sprawling kaleidoscope of memories and fantasies) is testament to the powerful and defiant bond that grows between them.
Floating dejectedly in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the lifeboat becomes the centrepiece around which is projected a visual feast of colours, textures and shapes. The ocean and the sky above it become characters in their own right as they constantly shift in tone and temperament, unparalleled in their synchronised beauty but which fast become a presence deadlier and more unpredictable than the 450lb predator.
While Sharma’s performance is astonishing in its physicality and sincerity, his feline counterpart is a beautifully realised creature, both on an emotional and technical level. The visual effects build on the revolutionary CG work championed by Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Although real tigers were used for some scenes, Richard Parker is largely a CG creation, complete with the subtle motions of the real thing but still in no way an outright substitute for it. Ang Lee's use of 3D is perhaps the most novel achievement though, fashioned to act as a narrative aid rather than a visual supplement by using the third dimension to evoke lapses of time.
Life of Pi is a glorious visual masterpiece that boasts groundbreaking CG animation and a laudable loyalty to Yann Martel's bestseller. Though Ang Lee's epic may lack the finer details of the book, it becomes a story so deliberately made for the screen due to its sheer visual scope and gorgeous dreamlike quality. Life of Pi resonates with profound spirituality, magical realism and fantastic imagination, and its antithetic conclusion only reinforces the notion that a good story well told is all the truth you need.