Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 December 2012

52163 over 16604

I think that the first thing to note about Life of Pi is that it is basically a kids' movie. It's rated PG (a fact I had apparently not noticed before buying my ticket). I had also forgotten that Life of Pi is in 3D. (The 3D works quite well and enhances the picture nicely, by the way; it isn't simply an unnecessary addition used to increase the price of your ticket.)

Ang Lee's film takes Yann Martel's survival novel (the book works like The Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe) and makes a kind of fairytale out of it, something magical and filled with wonder. In fact – and how often does one get to say this? – the movie is better than the novel. Much better. Lee is able to use both CGI and 3D in ways that bring the story to life in a way Martel's prose never does. The film works more like 2001: a Space Odyssey or one of Jules Verne's great novels, where there are always new things to discover, and the world is a place of remarkable synchronicity and spectacle.

Lee and his screenwriter David Magee (the magical storyteller behind Finding Neverland) also manage to deal brilliantly with the book's incredibly problematic third section. The movie cannot escape its source material's insistence on the quote power of storytelling unquote (something I found clichéd in both the novel and the film), but it manages to deal with the pitfalls of this banal aphorism by using the medium of film itself – well, digital cinematography, anyway – to illustrate the power of cinematic storytelling. You'll see what I mean when you see the picture. The end of the film is never shown, only narrated, whereas we see the entire middle section of the film, we're in it. The second version of the tale feels less real – necessarily so – because we never actually see it. Gérard Depardieu does not eat Bo-Chieh Wang's leg.

The performances are lovely. Suraj Sharma, in his first film role, is great as the younger Pi, and Irrfan Khan (whom you know from Slumdog Millionaire and Mira Nair's films Salaam Bombay! and The Namesake) is just superb as the older, Canadian Pi. Irrfan Khan gives one of my favorite performances of the year, in fact. He is truly lovely in the film. Indian megastar Tabu is also great as Pi's mom. I want to say, too, that I loved Mychael Danna's music. It's absolutely beautiful, and can hold its own with any other of this year's scores.

I had been worried about the CGI in the movie, and the truth is that Life of Pi doesn't always look real. In fact, an overwhelming majority of it looks computer-generated. But Lee deals with this, as well. The realistic scenes with Irrfan Khan and Rafe Spall, his interlocutor in Montréal in the present day, all have a similarly CGI-inflected feel. The effect of this is that the "real" feels artistic and computerized from the beginning, so that when a tiger jumps toward the camera (a lovely homage to Apocalypse Now) it struck me as just as "real" as the scenes at the adult Pi's kitchen table in Québec.

Like I said, though, Life of Pi is a kids' movie. Lee and Magee have softened the book's violence for the film. Violence always exists just out of the view of the camera; there is no blood at all (a shocking artistic choice, really); and one never truly feels that Pi is in any danger whatsoever. The cannibalism and murders in the book are completely excised for the film, allowing the movie to avoid the strange feeling I had when I finished the novel, that all of this fantasy and the cliché of "the power of storytelling" covered over something much more sinister. The film has none of these complications, making for a more straightforward tale, and to my mind a much less troubling one.

The religious element of the novel takes up a similar amount of space as it does in Martel's novel. I fail – as I did in the book – to understand how this section of the story makes any sense or has any relation to the rest of the tale. Sure, it's comical; Pi is a Hindu, a Christian, and a Muslim, and apparently sees no contradiction in combining the three religions. The film makes him a sort of Kabbalist, as well. But gods have basically nothing to do with the story/stories of Life of Pi. This is a tale of a young man and a Bengal tiger. The addition of religion seems a digression (at least it did to me) in both the novel and the film. At the very least, the tale told by Pi – his total abandonment of religious dogma and, indeed, many moral principles, while at sea due to (obviously) hunger and its attendant madness – seems to demonstrate the deficiencies of dogma when confronted with true life-or-death struggles such as, oh, you know, being abandoned at sea for the better part of a calendar year.

The film of Life of Pi is less about gods and more about the universe. This movie is a kind of paean to the beauty of the world in which we live, the world we think we know, but which holds many wonders that we can see if only we pay attention: the ocean and its vastness, the many animals of the world, the stars and the solar system, the extraordinary fact of edible plant life, even evolution. Life of Pi asks us to be grateful for these gifts, and entreats us to look at them with new eyes, thanking the universe for what it has granted us, that it has allowed us to perceive even the small part of the splendor it allows us to access.