In 2011, the New York Film Festival gave a sneak peak of Martin Scorsese’s as-of-then unfinished film Hugo, a 3D movie based on a children’s book whose protagonist is a child. The film was not merely children’s fantasy however and Hugo earned itself a nomination for Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards (which I thought it should have taken—the winner, The Artist, was an official NYFF selection in 2011 however).
In 2012, the 50th Anniversary of the New York Film Festival opened with the world premiere of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi based on the book of the same name by Yann Martel. As Mr. Lee introduced the film, he shared some typical Hollywood words of advice that he went against making this film, “never work with kids, animals or water”, and then he added that they are all here, all in 3D. While Hugo is immersed in movie magic, Life of Pi is steepd in to spirituality and sublime power. What or who has that power, I won’t try to explain—just as you can look at the titular Pi, short for Piscine, and wonder how he considers himself a Christian, Hindu and Muslim. But what I do know is, I won’t be surprised to see Life of Pi nominated for Best Picture. As a film, Life of Pi is equal to or greater than the book—no easy feat as the literary version earned the Man Booker Prize in 2002.
Pi Patel, played by Irrfan Khan in his older form, narrates his adrift at sea tale to a writer (Rafe Spall). While reliving the story, the new actor Suraj Sharma plays the lead Pi. His main human cast also includes, Pi’s mother, played by Tabu (Khan and Tabu acted together in the other literary adaptation The Namesake), and his brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar). The other major on-screen character is Richard Parker, the Bengali tiger Pi gets set adrift with. Ang Lee put great effort into making the CGI tiger realistic by modeling his behavior on several real tigers, and the beautiful cat dutifully demonstrates the studied movements.
This animal and the unanticipated voyage are rendered in superb colors with gorgeous details. Scenes with aquatic animals swimming and jumping are dazzling (particularly the bioluminescent scene), while those of storms actually threaten the audience with their power. At times it is downright impossible to separate the sky from the sea, building on the immensity of the Pacific and Pi’s growingly desperate situation.
Of course, even with these grandiose scenes, if the adapted story didn’t create interest and draw the audience in, the movie wouldn’t work. The story is immersive for the most part but I felt two scenes were rather weak, and the first, where Richard Parker takes a goat, is cut in such an illogical way that, during the question and answer portion, a journalist asked Ang Lee how we were supposed to “suspend disbelief” for it. The answer he gave was not satisfactory enough (hopefully they rework the scene for the official November release) but it may not matter much. In a story this wildly inventive, you’ll have to suspend your disbelief more often than not. Life of Pi is a compelling and entertaining story for all ages that manages to dip into the divine without getting bogged down.
With the Life of Pi as its opening selection, the 50th New York Film Festival kicked off with a bang. It continues through October 14th at Lincoln Center while Life of Pi will see its release on November 21st.
NYFF Life of Pi Press Conference: