LIFE OF PI (M) **** 1/2
General Release, opens New Year's Day
Reviewer: SIMON WEAVING
Both gripping adventure and epic spiritual journey, Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling - awash with care, wonder, utterly convincing special effects, and an extraordinary performance from first-time actor Suraj Sharma.
Sharma plays Pi Patel, a 17-year-old boy who leaves India on a Japanese freighter with his family and a collection of animals from the family's zoo in Pondicherry. Headed for Canada, where they intend to sell the animals and start a new life, the ship runs into trouble, leaving Pi stranded in a life raft with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker. And it's Pi relationship with the huge Bengal tiger that occupies the centre of this unusual and captivating story. Day after day, as the sea throws its wonders and its warnings at the small craft, man and beast must find a way to co-exist - all the while, Pi keeping a diary and musing on the nature of existence.
It's been a long and difficult journey getting the novel to the big screen, with three other directors attached to the project before Lee (including M. Night Shyamalan and Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet). It's hard to imagine that anyone could have done better. Lee's beautifully measured storytelling, eye for detail and moral sensitivity make this epic as visually rewarding as it is spiritually intriguing. It's pure pleasure for the viewer, from the cheeky opening credits to the mystical closing line.
Technology plays a huge hidden part in this 3D film - with some of the best computer-generated imagery ever created bringing the character of Richard Parker to life. Interacting seamlessly with the dangerous virtual beast, Suraj Sharma is captivating in this his first screen role, making the cruel emotional, physical and existential journey of Pi touching and magical. Special effects, too, make the ocean a vital character in the story, with sea creatures - from whales to luminous jellyfish - visiting the shipwrecked survivors as they battle hunger and the mental torture of lonely days in the watery wilderness.
David Magee's script only falters momentarily, with the introduction of the character of ''the writer'' (Rafe Spall), added unnecessarily to bookend the story and explain what really needs no explanation. But it's a minor quibble for an extraordinary piece of cinema from a master storyteller.