Taiwan-born Ang Lee, more than any director working today, is a filmmaker for the world. His three great love stories — martial arts romance "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," gay tragedy "Brokeback Mountain" and Jane Austen's"Sense and Sensibility"– were accessible to multiple cultures. And with "Life of Pi" (November 21) Lee has fashioned, with screenwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") adapting Yann Martel's global bestseller, another love story that transcends borders. In this case, it's between a 17-year-old young man (non-pro Suraj Sharma) from India and a Bengal tiger.
Is it possible for a wild animal to love a human being? And vice versa? At a time in the world when religion can be so devisive, Martel's story of a Hindu/Christian/Muslim who is the sole human survivor of an ocean shipwreck reminds that film can both heal and inspire. But it is also a stunning technological triumph, as the VFX required were impossible until now. Conceived four years ago before the arrival of the 3-D "Avatar," this movie is a live-action/animation hybrid, as major characters like the threatening tiger and sublime phosphorescent Pacific seascapes could only be created by artists in the digital realm.
Scenes of breathtaking beauty have to be seen to be believed, from a simple shot of the tiger in the moonlight and several surreal mergers of sea and sky to Pi floating underwater watching the ship–his family aboard–going down. Not to mention a luminescent whale breach or sequences of thousands of flying silver fish –whirring at you in 3-D. Lee's mastery of the aesthetics of 3-D should not to be underestimated–he considered every detail in terms of its impact on the viewer. And never have spatial relationships been more dramatic, as Pi maneuvers with a large tiger in a small life boat on a huge ocean.
The film, whose budget far exceeded its planned $70 million cost, begins with a stunning series of shots of real animals in all their natural glory–at a zoo in Pondicherry, India (where the film was shot, along with a huge water tank in Taiwan). The movie revels in the lush colors and textures of India, as Lee sets up the movie's throughlines. His narrator, the adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn of "Slumdog Millionaire") tells his improbable survival story to a young Canadian novelist ("Anonymous" actor Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire mid-film).
We meet Pi's family, who don't understand his attraction to three of the world's main religions, including not only Hinduism but Christianity and Islam, as well as the fierce zoo tiger Richard Parker, who ravages a goat in front of Pi's eyes. Pi's belief in both God and the soul of a tiger play out as he uses his wits (and a life boat instruction manual) to outsmart Richard Parker on a life boat for 227 days. "Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ," says Pi at one point. "God wasn't finished with me yet," he says at another.
As I suspected when I first saw footage at CinemaCon in April, this movie will play for critics, audiences and awards givers all over the world. It has the right elements: globally popular literary source (7 million copies sold); heart-warming family story from an A-list Oscar-winning director ("Brokeback Mountain"); and epic VFX. While "Life of Pi" will be a leading contender for Oscars, the film's technical accomplishments should certainly be recognized (especially "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" D.P. Claudio Miranda), as well perhaps as actors Sharma and Kahn. Richard Parker deserves a nomination as well.
One irony is that departed Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman backed this risky venture, but Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler and producer Gil Netter ("The Blind Side") also deserve credit for standing behind Lee's quest to make this remarkable film. "It has a gigantic visual effects component," Gabler told me as she was trying to convince Fox to give it the greenlight. "You can't put a live tiger in a boat with a child. It has elements of 'Castaway,' when the kid is alone in the boat. You don't need language to convey what's on the screen. We need to make the movie for the whole world."
That they did.