Life of Pi
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: David Magee (screenplay) and Yann Martel
Starring: Suraj Sharma, Rafe Spall and Irrfan Khan
I rarely insist that a movie be seen on the big screen, but if you are going to watch Life of Pi, that’s the only place to do so. Director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has produced a visual fete; effortlessly blending CGI, live action and 3D into an epic tale of a man (and a tiger) lost at sea. However, the visuals are by far the most compelling reason to see the film. I found the narrative frustrating, especially the ending, and the film suffers from some pacing issues after the hero has been out at sea for some time. Pi is couched as being a spiritually enlightening film, but it seemed more a case of the emperor having no clothes.
I’ll come clean and tell you I’ve not read the book, so I have no idea if the film adaptation does justice to Yann Matel’s manuscript. The film tells the tale Pi Patel (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) who recants a fantastical adventure he experienced as a youth to curious writer (Rafe Spall) looking for some source material. Early flashbacks establish the fact that young Pi was on a constant quest for a concrete grasp on spirituality, sampling bits and pieces from several different religions. Adult Pi assures us that his harrowing experience ultimately led him to the very God he so fervently sought, and culminated in a profound belief in said God. He assures the writer that he too will believe in God after he hears the entire story.
Pi’s family owned a zoo, and they decide to move from their native India to North America. The family and their animals are all on board a ship when a storm causes the ship to sink, leaving man and beast alike struggling to survive in the churning waters. Pi manages to get onto a lifeboat and a wildly desperate zebra leaps onto the vessel, along with an orangutan, a hyena, and a pissed off tiger. Within a few days, Pi is left alone with the Tiger, adrift in the middle of the ocean.
He crafts a makeshift raft and floats it behind the lifeboat so he can maintain a safe distance from his carnivorous companion. Pi spends his time reading from a survival manual found on the boat and trying to keep himself and the tiger alive. He actually forges a strong if not unbreakable bond with the creature, believing that the responsibility of caring for the tiger is what has kept him alive as the days turn into months.
Lee’s ocean sequences are like Blue Planet on acid. A whale is dotted with glowing plankton that sparkle like green embers and Pi’s gaze into the depths of the water reveals dizzying layers of sea creatures and zoo animals swirling in the currents. A school of metallic flying fish leap across the boat, offering a much needed reprieve from certain starvation. A latter scene takes place on an island inhabited by so many meerkats that they form a moving carpet that encompasses the topography of the island. There’s no disputing that these scenes are stunning, to say the least.
But the narrative doesn’t hold up. After you take the journey with Pi and the Tiger, you want to believe (no, not in God, silly) in the story, because nobody could make up something so crazy. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. If you finally succumb to the tale and go along for the ride, the ending of the movie snatches your initial sense of wonderment away. Yeah, I get that it is an allegory, but I liked the fairy tale story better. It’s also disappointing that this is yet another movie that feels the need to bookend the middle with a helpful introduction and wrap up with characters that only appear in the first and last five minutes. In my make believe movie edit, the story ends on Meerkat Island.
Spring for the 3D if you do see this in theaters. It adds a rich depth, particularly to the underwater scenes. The CGI is top notch. There is a scene where the tiger is clinging to the lifeboat and looking directly into Pi’s eyes, as if pleading for its life, and I actually got goose bumps. Lee manages to bring a surprising amount of humanity to the tiger, which is amazing, considering it is not even real. Which leads me to first time actor Shuraj Sharma. He has the unenviable task of making us believe he is acting with animals for the entirety of the film, but basically it’s a one-man show. After that shipwreck there is no human interaction at all, just the tale of the symbiotic relationship that Pi and the tiger settle into while they struggle to survive.
Perhaps there is an esoteric component to the film that I didn’t take away from my viewing, but I didn’t think the movie delivered on its initial promise. It comes across as a bit cloying. That being said, Pi is a slam-dunk recommend based purely on style, but on substance, not so much. – Shannon