Movie review: Life of Pi (3D)

Since picking up his Best Director Oscar in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain Taiwanese director Ang Lee's career has gone somewhat low profile.

Since then he's only directed two features: his foreign language epic Lust, Caution in 2007 and 2009's Taking Woodstock, neither were considered global commercial successes.

Although his latest is a 3D film, it's nowhere near as commercial as the more recent films released in the third dimension. But don't make the mistake of thinking it's an inferior film to them in anyway; in fact, it's probably the most satisfying and impressive grown-up film released in 3D to date.

You wouldn't know to look at him but Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) has led a truly extraordinary life. A Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall) has been told by a friend that if he's looking for inspiration for a story to tell, then he should meet Pi.

Sitting in his living room, Pi begins to recall the incredible events that happened to him as a child to the writer. Tales of how he got his name Pi in the first place, to how his father created a zoo in their home land of India for him and his family to live.

The most as astonishing part of his story however, began when his family had to leave India behind, boarding a Japanese ship to embark on a new life in Canada. But when a storm hit the ship, Pi was forced to endure the most incredible journey of all, with a certain 'Richard Parker' for company.

If you look through Lee's CV (which also includes Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk) you can appreciate that he's always up for a challenge. And in many ways, Life of Pi is his most ambitious yet.

Those with an appreciation for literature will probably be aware that this feature is based on Yann Martel's acclaimed novel of the same name. It's a book that once read, although vividly visual, comes across as being virtually unfilmable. Luckily for everyone that Lee didn't think the same way.

Considering that the majority of the book sees the protagonist at sea in a tiny life boat, Lee indulges in some delightful story telling in helping to set up the main thrust of the story to come.

And then, with the aid of some heart-touching acting from debutant Suraj Sharma (one of four actors playing the same character during the film) and some spectacular special effects (supplied by Rhythm and Hues Studios), Lee manages to hold an audiences' attention for over an hour with just a small life boat all at sea.

Where Lee manages to truly impress is his ability to harness the startling technology at his disposal – and presenting them with a genuinely natural feel – and gently weave it into his incredible journey. What's more, there's also the under-pinning spiritual element to the whole film, which is expressed in a very subtle manner; the film can be enjoyed merely from the point of view of some unbelievable episodes from a young man's life, but the sub-text of his spiritual journey through religion is a more fascinating one.

On top of it being quite an esoteric adventure, Lee also decides to throw the 3D element into the mix for good measure. It's a curious combination, but it works beautifully. Instead of feeling gimmicky, the 3D aspect really does feel like it's an integral part to Lee's story-telling process.

Where you think Lee would struggle the most is the time spent at sea; for over an hour the young Sharma has to spend his time with a few CGI animals for company in a little boat bobbing about in a huge ocean. The relationship he develops with his Bengal tiger companion is reminiscent of that Between Tom Hanks and his round, bouncy friend Wilson in 2000's Cast Away; it's just as warm and endearing too.

All these elements add up to produce a most curious beast – a small, personal and spiritual film with a blockbusting mentality and state of the art special effects.

Not only has Lee filmed the unfilmable, he's delivered an achingly beautiful piece of cinema (in 3D no less). Not only that, but because of the high tech values and fluffy animals involved, he's likely to expose a mass audience unknowingly to something both spiritual and artistic, which is probably the biggest achievement of them all.

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