“Life of Pi” is a movie I could never get excited about seeing. During several trips to the theater I tried to muster up enough interest to cause me to see it but it was tough. I wasn’t convinced of the story and I’m not the biggest fan of Ang Lee. It finally took strong reviews from several of my movie blogging buddies and the large number of Oscar nominations it received to get me to check it out before it left the big screen.
“Life of Pi” is based on Yann Martel 2001 novel which was considered by many to be an unfilmable book. The project passed through the hands of several different writers and directors before finally resting with Ang Lee directing and David Magee handling the script. This was a highly ambitious work requiring a clear vision and a large number of special effects artists to make it the jaw-dropping visual experience Ang Lee was shooting for. There’s no doubting that this is a major cinematic accomplishment and even though I may not have responded as strongly as others, I was still very impressed with what the filmmakers were able to do.
“Life of Pi” is a story of religion and faith. It’s not a story of a religion or a specific faith. No, it plays it safe by just speaking to the power of faith in God while never clearly defining the God it speaks of. I guess you could say that the movie isn’t in the business of proselytizing and it steers clear of that through the very tidy character of Piscine “Pi” Patel. The movie begins with a novelist, hungry for inspiration for a new book, visiting an adult Piscine (Irrfan Kahn) after being told he had a good story to tell. Piscine begins sharing his incredible story which we see through flashbacks.
We first see Piscine as a child living at the zoo ran by his parents. He changes his name to Pi after facing a year’s worth of ridicule over his real name from his classmates at school. Pi grows up to be a very smart and spiritual young man. At 13-years old, he is introduced to Christianity which he adds to his Hindu upbringing. Later he adds Islam into the mix to complete his unique theological perspective. Pi’s father wants him to be more of a rationally thinking person and ends up teaching Pi some lessons that change his view of the world. At age 16, Pi and his family are forced to close down the zoo, sell their animals, and move to Canada. They hop aboard a Japanese freighter with some of their animals in tow and head across the Pacific.
While at sea a monstrous storm hits which capsizes and sinks the huge vessel. For me this was one of the most visually stunning sequences in the entire picture. Pi manages to get to a life boat but his family and everyone else onboard are killed. But he’s not alone on the small boat. A crippled zebra, a baboon, a vicious hyena, and a huge bengal tiger known in their zoo as Richard Parker are also with him. The natural chain soon kicks in and Richard Parker and Pi are the only two remaining. The bulk of the film follows the two in their attempt to survive. Suraj Sharma plays the 16-year old Pi and he is really good. Sharma went through a lot of physical preparation for this role including ocean survival training. He also had the tricky task of acting with and reacting to a tiger that wasn’t there. It’s a great performance.
The movie becomes one part survival story and another part spiritual journey although I would argue that the spirituality takes a backseat until the end of the picture. It becomes more of a subtle and subconscious component of the film as things move forward. The relationship between Pi and Richard Parker becomes the driving force of the story. They begin as predator versus prey but soon becoming territorial enemies. It’s pretty fascinating to watch Lee and Magee take both of these characters down to the most basic animalistic survival instincts. You would expect it from Richard Parker but Pi finds himself fighting against these impulses. He learns it will take more than that if they are to survive their ordeal.
A lot has been said about the visual experience that “Life of Pi” provides. I have to admit, at times it can leave you speechless. There are some beautiful shots in the film soaked in vivid colors and framed with such imagination. The animation involved in bringing Richard Parker to life is something you just have to see. I was blown away. But I have to say what I liked in the film could have been done without 3-D. Now don’t get me wrong, the 3-D is better than 90% of the stuff that comes out today. But after all I heard, I expected something that would knock my socks off. It does have a handful of dazzling 3-D moments but I think the movie would be just as visually stimulating in bright and clear digital.
I do have another gripe. I couldn’t help but feel the movie begin to lose me a little after Pi and Richard Parker had been lost at sea for a while. It seems like the movie took too much time in progressing their relationship and moving towards the finale. The survivalist element was quite good but eventually I did start hungering for some type of conclusion. But when it did come to an end, I felt it wrapped everything up in a smart, emotional, and thought-provoking way.
So while I may not be as crazy about “Life of Pie” as some of my moviegoing friends and the Academy, I still really appreciate what Ang Lee was able to accomplish. There’s a lot of creativity and skill on display. And while I felt the story did play it safe, it also asked some questions that many movies seem afraid of. That’s something else I can appreciate. “Life of Pi” wouldn’t have cracked my top 10 list of 2012 movies, but it’s a very good film and I am really anxious to revisit it.