[Screen It]


(2012) (Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan) (PG)

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Drama: A teenager must contend with being shipwrecked for a long time in a lifeboat where his only companion is a wild tiger from his family's zoo.
Yann Martel (RAFE SPALL) is a reporter/author who's heard of an amazing tale regarding a man by the name of Piscine "Pi" Patel (IRRFAN KHAN), and thus arrives at his home to interview him about an event from his past that forever changed him. Growing up in the family zoo run by his father (ADIL HUSSAIN) and mother (TABU), along with his older brother, Ravi (VIBISH SIVAKUMAR), 16-year-old Pi (SURAJ SHARMA) is upset to learn that they're closing their zoo, leaving India and setting sail for a new life.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the freighter carrying them and their wild animals runs into a fierce storm that swamps and sinks the ship, with only Pi and a handful of animals surviving in a lone lifeboat. That includes an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hungry hyena and the biggest surprise of all, a Bengal tiger by the name of Richard Parker. Soon it's just Pi and the fierce feline, with the teen fashioning himself a raft attached to the lifeboat to keep himself safe from the tiger.

As the days, weeks and months wear on, Pi tries to figure out how to keep himself alive, while also tending to the tiger who's become his unlikely traveling partner and, in some ways, friend.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Back when special effects weren't quite up to speed like they are today, certain novels or ideas were often described as being un-filmable. I thought the same thing decades ago while working on a screenplay that originated with a story I had read in the long defunct magazine "Omni" about the possibility of preserved dinosaur DNA being found in a mosquito suspended in amber for millions of years.

I imagined a story idea about that being extracted, a T-Rex being grown from the genetic material, and it then escaping and running amok, not only threatening people with its natural predatory instinct, but also the virus that killed off all dinosaurs way back when. Alas, it wasn't writer's block or difficulties in creating characters that stymied me. Instead, it was the thought that there was no way Hollywood could create such a movie, what with the limited state of special effects at that time.

Undeterred by that, especially since he was telling his tale in novel form, Michael Crichton beat me to the punch with a little novel he titled "Jurassic Park." The rest is cinematic history, what with the work of the mechanical animatronics of Stan Winston and the technical wizardry of ILM, all of which combined to prove me wrong about something being un-filmable.

Accordingly, I no longer believe in such a quality, and thus was surprised to hear so many people say it about Yann Martel's fantasy adventure novel "Life of Pi." After all, it was first published in 2001, eight years after Steven Spielberg proved humans and dinosaurs could believably coexist on the big screen. That said, and while it might not seem like a significant difference, at that time there was a huge rendering disparity between making credible dinosaurs (of which no one obviously had any real reference) and a Bengal tiger that would need to believably coexist with an Indian teen in a lifeboat far out at sea.

I'm guessing that once the first "Chronicles of Narnia" film was released in 2005 and showed a fairly realistic, digitally created lion, the powers that be realized this story could be done as well. And so now we have the first-ever filmed version of the tale, beautifully brought to the screen by director Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").

Following in the most recent cinematic footsteps of "Cast Away" and "127 Hours" about stories featuring characters who end up stranded and devoid of any human contact, the film -- adapted for the screen by David Magee from Martel's novel -- focuses on a young man whose family is moving its zoo animals across the seas, only to have a savage storm sink the cargo ship carrying all of them. The teen and a few animals survive, eventually dwindling down into a "boy and his Bengal tiger" tale that's just a little different than the far more usual "boy and his dog" story.

It's an occasionally gripping, fascinating, mesmerizing and even emotionally moving film that's stymied by one significant issue. And that's its story structure. I haven't read the novel so I don't know how the tale is told, but this is one that's told in flashback by Piscine "Pi" Patel (Irrfan Khan) to an author/reporter (Rafe Spall, playing Martel) who's heard of the former's amazing life story as the aforementioned teen.

The big (and quite obvious) problem with that is we know how things turn out. Okay, perhaps not everything and certainly not how the events would unfold moment by moment. By knowing that the character survived in the past to tell his story now, however, that removes a great deal of suspense and any in-the-moment dread during the flashback proceedings.

While a late third act revelation explains why it was structured this way, I would have changed that to having the reporter telling the tale of (or reading the journal by) the protagonist to others (sort of like what occurs in "The Princess Bride"). That still could have used Pi's voice for the transitions back to the main event, but its greatest benefit would have been keeping the viewer on the edge of his or her seat regarding whether the title character lived or died.

That aside, the film is beautifully shot (courtesy of cinematographer Claudio Miranda, with the 3D adding intimacy to the shots), features good performances by newcomer Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan ("Slumdog Millionaire") as the protagonist at different ages, and delivers what's arguably the best collection of digitally created, real-life critters. I'm guessing there was some combination of that along with use of a real tiger for certain scenes, and if that was the case, I certainly couldn't see or sense the difference.

All in all, I liked the picture, and if you're a cat lover you're going to see a lot of your current or past kitty in the big feline here, along with some moments that might get the ocular waterworks flowing. And that late plot development packs something of an unexpected punch that should get many a viewer thinking. I just wish the story had been structured differently in order to keep suspense at its peak and the outcome in doubt, at least to some degree. Good but not great, "Life of Pi" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 8, 2012 / Posted November 21, 2012

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