In Yann Martel’s best-selling novel Life of Pi, a Montréal writer visits an Indian immigrant to hear a story that he has been told will “make you believe in God.” The film version from director Ang Lee may not change your spiritual convictions, but it will make you believe in CGI. Rarely have computer effects been used so skillfully to create not just an eye-bending dreamscape (à la Avatar) but a compelling human story.
Thing is, one of the principal characters in that story isn’t human. The bulk of the wild tale that Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells the visiting writer (Rafe Spall) concerns his survival for months adrift in a lifeboat accompanied only by a Bengal tiger. As a child in Pondicherry, the spiritually voracious Pi (played at 11 by Ayush Tandon) believed animals had souls; his father (Adil Hussain), a zookeeper and secular rationalist, endeavored to convince him otherwise. After the freighter carrying his family and their menagerie to Canada sinks in a howling storm, the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) gets a quick and brutal lesson in the workings of the food chain. Alone with the zoo’s prize tiger, who bears the unlikely name Richard Parker, he must learn how not to become dinner himself. Pi develops a testy alliance with the beast as they drift into wondrous climes where flying fish come in flurries and calm seas reflect unearthly sunsets.
Stories of human-animal bonds are most powerful when, like The Black Stallion or How to Train Your Dragon, they let the animal act like an animal, free of anthropomorphizing cuteness. But ... a tiger? Big cats not being known for their amenability to Hollywood direction, an effects studio called Rhythm & Hues spent a full year digitally creating Richard Parker, according to the New York Times, with more than a dozen artists assigned to the play of light on fur alone. The result is an illusion (except for the occasional real tiger shot) that appears as solid and personable as most of the film’s talented actors. If the glowing-eyed fake baby in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 was a low point for CGI, this is a high one.
The power of Life of Pi sneaks up on you, rather like the raw sadness of Lee’s best-known previous prestige pic, Brokeback Mountain. The early scenes in India border on cloying, with postcard beauty and whimsical flourishes trumping substance. The child Pi’s religious experiments feel shallow, while the frame story, with its inspiration-seeking writer, comes off as an Oscar-bait convention. But when the plot narrows to Pi’s survival dilemma, everything grows more gripping and complex, including the implications of that act of storytelling.
Sharma makes the teen Pi immensely sympathetic; his interactions with his traveling companion are feats of empathy and imagination that almost convince us Richard Parker does have a soul. For his part, Khan holds a darkness behind his eyes that fits the evolution of the adult Pi’s tale. Both are such strong presences that it would be a shame if Life of Pi fell victim to the conventional Hollywood wisdom that Americans avoid movies without recognizable stars.
The film’s ending, which follows the novel, is bound to divide audiences and start arguments about what, if anything, Pi’s story “makes us believe.” For my money, it’s simply a testament to the power of stories well told, whether with words or captured images or artfully arranged pixels, to persuade us of things we wish were true.