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REVIEW: Life of Pi
REVIEW: Life of Pi

Even though it won the Booker Prize and sold millions of copies, I was reluctant to climb on board the Life of Pi juggernaut, to throw in my lot with Yann Martel's fable about a shipwreck survivor trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

The notion of a Hindu youngster adrift at sea with a wild animal smacked too much of by-the- numbers magic realism, of a Jungle Book-ish fable in which man and beast bond after a ship carrying animals from his father's zoo from India to Canada goes down in the middle of the Pacific. Do they get rescued by a hobbit and gang of dwarves?

But Martel's book turned out to be anything but a book-club-ready trifle. It's a sophisticated philosophical novel in which Martel uses a shipwreck adventure to deal with issues such as religion and faith, our relationship to the natural world and the wrong- headedness of anthropomorphism, and our deep impulse to use storytelling to confront the chaos and meaningless of existence.

And while readers of this teasingly ambiguous allegory have been grappling with the meaning of the tiger, who is called Richard Parker for an amusing reason, such is the quality of Martel's writing that the animal remains just that - a snarling beast ready to pounce upon the boy and rip him to pieces.

It's not surprising that Ang Lee, in bringing Life of Pi to the big screen, fails to capture the full force and richness of Martel's book, which spends the first third in the French enclave of Pondicherry where young Pi (as recalled by his older self) recounts his idyllic life, his father's zoo and, most significantly, his grappling with the nature of God and drive to unify the world's great religions.

But even with inevitable shortcomings, Lee has achieved a minor miracle with Life of Pi, giving us some sense of the novel's mysteries and philosophical challenges and, making the most artful and ravishing use of 3-D since Martin Scorsese's Hugo, achieving a look and a mood that's transporting but never childlike.

Most importantly, Lee never breaks the rules of Pi's zoo owner father about the dangers of anthropomorphism.

Even as Pi (a wonderfully emotive performance from newcomer Suraj Sharma) and the tiger negotiate an uneasy detente after the other animals which landed in the boat after the ship went down have eaten each other, Lee never allows us to forget the horror of the situation, carefully detailing how the resourceful youngster manages to keep the beast at a safe distance. And the tiger itself is a wonder to behold. Moving imperceptibly between a real tiger and one created by the digital wizards of the effects house Rhythm & Hues, Lee has created a creature as majestic as it is realistic and scary.

Lee and his army of artists have also blended live action and CGI to render the endless beauty of the ocean upon which Pi and Richard Parker drift for months, unleashing natural wonders at regular intervals - a leaping whale that almost crushes the boat, flying fish that are like manna from heaven - to remind the boy of God's presence.

Martel's real intellectual challenge comes in the final moments when the older Pi (Irrfan Khan), who is telling the tale to an enthralled writer played by Rafe Spall (he's the Martel stand-in), throws a spanner in the works by recounting another version of the same story and asking him to choose which one is true.

Lee has opted to let that alternative version of events be spoken instead of dramatised.

To see those events in vivid 3-D would have given the ambiguity a Rashomon-like force that would have us walking out of the cinema not just in wonderment at Lee's eye-popping imagery but arguing about what happened to Pi during those months at sea.

And if God is in the story, as Martel seems to suggest, then Lee's Life of Pi is a pretty good argument for his existence.