Film review: Great tiger – a pity the narrative of Life of Pi is all at sea

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For long sections of the film, one forgets what the story is meant to be proposing at all

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a Wonder of the Universe movie, sumptuously shot, ravishingly coloured and absolutely up to the minute in its use of 3D technology. It is also sincerely felt and nicely performed. So why did I find myself longing for it be over?

Lee is a meticulous and occasionally brilliant filmmaker, and he has written the book on genre versatility; it's hard to think of another mainstream director who could handle the steep pressure changes between period drama (Sense and Sensibility) martial arts cinema (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and gay Western (Brokeback Mountain) without suffering the bends.

Yet there is, even in his best work, a tendency to drift, a feeling for expansiveness that sometimes runs – or rambles – away with itself. Certainly Life of Pi is in no hurry to get started, its framing device a slightly dreary conversation between a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall) and an Indian emigre, Pi (Irrfan Khan), who's going to tell of an awfully big adventure he had as a boy.

Lee is adapting from Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel, a book that the director himself on finishing declared impossible to film. Perhaps that was all he needed to get cracking. Pi recalls his childhood in Pondicherry, south India, when he used to exasperate his rationalist father with a passionate curiosity in the concept of faith. Indeed, the boy (now played by Suraj Sharma) shops around the major world religions and emerges as a Catholic-Hindu-Muslim: "We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods," he remarks, drily.

Pi's father owns a zoo, whose inhabitants include a Bengal tiger. One day Pi tries a dangerous experiment with the beast, and only the intervention of his furious parent saves him, literally, from the jaws of death. "The tiger is not your friend," says his father, a warning that will resonate once the central section of the film is, at last, launched. When the family decides to emigrate, they herd the animals aboard a dodgy-looking freighter bound for Canada. They never arrive: struck in the middle of the Pacific by a monstrous storm, the boat goes down with all hands, and hooves.

Tossed on the turbulent sea Pi clambers onto a lifeboat, joining an hallucinatory gaggle of drenched survivors – a zebra, an orang-utan and a hyena, which sounds like the beginning of a surrealist joke, but isn't. The next morning brings to light, from beneath a tarp, one other occupant. It's that Bengal tiger again, its name owing to official error – Richard Parker.

So far, so morbidly whimsical. In time the lifeboat's company is reduced to two, Pi and the tiger, the latter looking mangier, thirstier and hungrier by the day. We are watching a fairytale, it seems, only this fairytale is about desperate survival: the boy realises that vigilance around the tiger will concentrate his mind, but also that he represents to his companion the last possibility of a square meal. Or a savoury Pi. This awkward negotiation is the dynamic of the story, which, like the lifeboat, drifts and circles and languidly avoids dropping down the plughole of narrative oblivion.

You may be reminded of Robinson Crusoe, or of Tom Hanks keeping body and soul together in the isolation of Cast Away. Suraj Sharma, a young debutant plucked from open auditions, does a creditable job of acting opposite a tiger that isn't there. (From where did he summon those looks of abject fright?). It's certainly a marvellous bit of digital trickery, this jungle cat, with its rippling fur, slavering jaws and lithe movement. For some in the audience it may not matter that it is a bit of trickery.

Even with this stark triangular set-up of boy and beast and sea, the movie is becalmed for long periods. And I think that's because of its outlandish unreality. It holds up wonders for us to admire, yet they have no purchase as drama. I looked at it rather like a crystal ball, shimmering with lovely apparitions that then dissolve to nothing. There's another huge storm, for instance, and a sequence in which the lifeboat is bombarded by wave after wave of flying fish.

The sea itself seems to come glisteningly alive with luminescent creatures of the deep. Later, the boy fetches up on an island populated entirely by meerkats, those magical creatures with a guardsman's posture and the dark-ringed eyes of all-night sentry duty. These fantastical images hold and absorb the gaze.

And still that central antagonism carries no suspense in it, despite Pi's prefatory claim that his story will convince us of the existence of God. For long sections one forgets what the story is meant to be proposing at all, aside from the infinite possibilities of digital technology. The boy and the tiger might just as well be the owl and the pussycat in their beautiful pea-green boat.

If the film does argue one thing successfully it's the ruthlessness of nature, first in the random terror of the sea swallowing down a boat (and Pi's family with it), then in the presentation of the tiger which, is never softened by hokey anthropomorphism. This beast really is no pussycat, and the film doesn't pretend any spiritual bond between man and man-eater. The final shot of the tiger is the most piercing, because it's the most implacable.

Life of Pi may profit from the cult-like devotion of the book's admirers. (It has sold more copies than any other Booker winner). It may also gain favour from people who mistake its fantastical element for something mysterious, or even sublime. Stories of isolated but resourceful individuals may do well in depressed and uncertain times. Its spirit is defiant but its substance is deficient.

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