Perhaps tigers will prove a lucky omen for Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, whose magical 3-D epic Life of Pi - based on the Booker Prize winning novel by Yann Martel - hits theaters in the U.S. this weekend. The film follows the adventurous tale of Pi, whose ship carrying zoo animals to Canada is his by a storm and sinks, leaving the protagonist on a lifeboat with only a fully grown Bengal tiger for company.
Life of Pi comes some 12 years after Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, whilst being nominated for Best Picture. Considered one of the most influential foreign movies of all time, Crouching Tiger was lauded for its story and cinematography, both of which are praised in Life of Pi. The new film has been a long-time coming. It clearly boasts a huge Hollywood-style story and has been on the mind of movie studio executives for years. In 2003, Fox 200 Pictures hired M. Night Shyamalan to direct the film though the filmmaker ultimately decided to make Lady In The Water instead, easily one of the worst movies ever made. As Time Magazine put it, "What was [Shyamalan] thinking? This isn't just duff, it's career-threatening catastrophic." In 2005, Fox entered talks with Alfonso Curaron, the award-winning filmmaker hailed for his classic Y Tu Mamá También. Curaron instead chose to directed Children of Men, leading Fox to hire Amelie directed Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The Frenchman began writing and adapting the screenplay and filming was scheduled to begin in 2006, though he eventually left the project and Fox hired Ang Lee.
Over 3,000 men auditioned for the role of Pi, though it was 17-year-old student Suraj Sharma who landed the role, albeit somewhat unintentionally. Sharma agreed to accompany his brother to the auditions for moral support, though was asked to try-out by the casting director and eventually landed the part. "I had never acted before", he told the New York Daily News, "The first thing I learned was how to act opposite no one. I didn't think I could do it, but Ang gets what he wants. So it was new for me - but it was doable"
Generally, critics have loved the movie, with Betsy Sharkey of the Los Angeles Times writing, "There are always moral crosscurrents in Lee's most provocative work, but so magical and mystical is this parable, it's as if the filmmaker has found the philosopher's stone." Claudia Puig of USA Today wrote, "With Life of Pi, Lee takes on a not-so-crouching tiger to bring audiences a wondrously enthralling adventure fable." Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine also lauded the director's work, writing, "Life of Pi puts 3D in the hands of a world-class film artist. Ang Lee uses 3D with the delicacy and lyricism of a poet. You don't just watch this movie, you live it."
Lee is no stranger to awards' season; his last assault on the Oscars came in 2005 with Brokeback Mountain, but can he do it again with Life of Pi? In years gone by, the movie may have challenged for the major honors, though with Lincoln, The Master, Argo, Les Miserables, The Sessions, Flight and Silver Linings Playbook all likely to be vying for Best Picture, is there room for Life of Pi? The bookies seem to think so, installing the magical epic as the fifth favorite at around 6/1.
Watch the trailer for Life of Pi below: