There are plenty of moviegoers who complain that originality is an endangered species at the multiplex. They need to spend some time with director Ang Lee.
In his 20-year career, this Taiwanese filmmaker has demonstrated amazing versatility, tackling everything from the Jane Austen courtship comedy-drama Sense and Sensibility to the sordid side of Seventies suburban life in The Ice Storm.
He has also built a track record as someone who can take difficult material and make it commercially successful. Remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the martial arts fantasy that brought in almost $130 million in American theaters, even though it had (gasp!) subtitles? Or how about Brokeback Mountain, the Jake Gyllenhaal/Heath Ledger love story that was considered to be box-office poison until audiences saw how beautifully and sensitively Lee and his stars told the story?
Those movies might have been warm-ups for Lee’s latest project, which tells the story of a young Indian man, named after a French swimming pool, who sets sail for Canada on a Japanese cargo ship and winds up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Hey, admit it: You don’t see that every day. The film is Life of Pi, the screen adaptation of Yann Martel’s international best-seller, and it’s safe to say you will not believe your eyes.
This is one of the most visually ravishing movies in ages and one of the very few that’s worth paying a couple of extra dollars to see in 3D. From the opening credit sequence in a Pondicherry zoo, Lee announces that he and cinematographer Claudio Miranda have every intention of giving your eyes a high-impact workout.
There are scenes in Life of Pi that are so arrestingly beautiful it’s as if Lee and production designer David Gropman invented some new colors or textures. At one point, Pi floats beneath a star-filled sky on tides illuminated by slow-swimming phosphorescent jellyfish, and the scene is so breathtakingly lovely you may wish it went on for hours. When lightning strikes the ocean, it creates an effect that’s as startling as if an ice rink had suddenly been transformed into a disco dance floor.
Even if you completely ignored the story, it would be entirely possible to be completely mesmerized by the sights and sounds alone. But Life of Pi is also a thoroughly engrossing tale of survival, as David Magee’s screenplay combines elements of terror, humor, psychological drama and fantasy with strong spiritual themes. It’s rare – and refreshing – to encounter a movie that takes religion and faith so seriously. The message that finally emerges is that it’s not as important to align yourself with one particular belief system as it is to simply appreciate and analyze the world around you, to avoid taking life at face value.
Played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma, accidental adventurer Pi divides his attention between being a devout Christian, Hindu and Muslim. He believes that animals have souls, and that conviction is put to the test when he must share his living space with a hungry tiger that goes by the name of Richard Parker.
The tug-of-war between Pi and Parker is alternately frightening and funny and completely fascinating. The young man and the tiger may be castaways set adrift, but there’s no question that Ang Lee has a clear sense of direction. Life of Pi is a journey you won’t forget.