(out of 5)
Ang Lee transfers Yann Martel’s bestselling novel to the big screen with gorgeous and superficial results. A Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall) goes to the Montreal home of a university professor (Irrfan Khan) after being told that he has a story to relate that is so impressive that it will make him believe in God. Spall and his faltering attempts to hide his British accent arrive at Khan’s house and the writer is immediately drawn into a magical tale of the man’s life, beginning with his childhood growing up in India with his father’s privately owned zoo in the backyard. When hard times hit and the family has to sell their animals and move to Canada, they get on board a freighter that hits stormy seas and capsizes, leaving our now teenage protagonist alone on the ocean with some unhealthy companionship: an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra and one hell of a mean Bengal tiger. The masterful direction by Lee guides us through the central piece of this movie beautifully, finding no end of technologically impressive ways of making the lone-man-against-the-elements plot fascinating, while also getting a performance out of lead actor Suraj Sharma as the young Khan so good that it anchors the rest of this surprisingly forgettable fluff. There’s a marvelous relationship that develops between Sharma and the computer-graphically created tiger (which really does seem like a real animal most of the time), and there are scenes, such as the phosphorescent jellyfish and visits by giant whales, that are so stunning as to be dazzling (especially in 3D, which is used with wonderfully subtle effect). The ultimate pay-off of the film is disappointing, however: a film that announces its own philosophical importance is only inviting that much more derision when it fails to achieve it. It declares itself a treatise on the human need for storytelling, particularly as a way to deal with grief and trauma, but what is supposed to be an ironic twist at the end of the film is actually just a manipulative parlour trick. Sadly this superficiality erases the memory of what works so very well in the film’s favour, particularly as it is never boring for a moment of its healthy and welcome running time.
Directed by Ang Lee
Cinematography by Claudio Miranda
Music by Mychael Danna
Production Design by David Gropman
Costume Design by Arjun Bhasin
Film Editing by Tim Squyres