If the title Life of Pi rings any bells, but you don’t know why, think back to grade school. More likely than not, it was a book on your summer reading list. For those unaware, the 2001 fantasy adventure novel, by Yann Martel, has been adapted into a miraculous film courtesy of Academy Award Winning director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain). Judging by certain clips, I expected a monotonous drama with bits of action sprinkled here and there to keep the audience attentive, but what I was left with should make anyone who has or hasn’t read the story give it a shot.
First of all, an enormous amount of credit needs to go to Lee for the natural beauty captured throughout the entirety of the film. The opening credits take place in several different animal habitats around the zoo in which Pi Patel lives. Each actor’s name is displayed next to a particular group of animals and the text reacts to how the animals move. Say a group of wild boars start swaying their tails, the words follow suit and sway left to right accordingly. The same can be seen when monkeys are swinging from trees, and the text begins bobbing up and down.
Although a seemingly minor observation, it really sets the tone that this is a serious story, yet at the same time, there is humble and adventurous humor to counter it. Plus, the animals are so amazing that you can’t tell the difference between real ones and the computer generated ones used later on.
If any fans of the book are skeptical to buy tickets, then this may make you feel better: the movie does stay true to Martel’s original, written version. The film opens with adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire) telling his story to a struggling writer (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) beginning with his childhood and leading up to the sinking of the freighter he and his family were aboard on their journey from India to Canada. Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) is left stranded in a lifeboat with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and most importantly, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The stormy shipwreck sequence is unlike anything seen in recent years and can honestly rival those of The Perfect Storm and Titanic.
The remainder of the film tracks Pi’s constant struggle with survival and faith in order to overcome the dangers of the open sea, which aren’t limited to the water and what it holds, but also the urge to give up. Eventually, it comes down to just him and Richard Parker on the lifeboat, and the bond the two share are unparalleled by many relationships humans have with one another. What starts out as Pi pondering ways to rid himself of the tiger, so that he can have the lifeboat to himself and not float next to it on a makeshift raft in fear for his life, gradually turns into his extremely unselfish drive to train, feed and take care of the great beast.
An interesting angle here is that even as a member of the audience, your feelings read and react exactly how Pi’s do. The moment that ultimately shapes their bond comes when the tiger leaps out of the lifeboat swimming towards Pi in an attempt at a meal, but Pi quickly gets into the lifeboat, leaving the animal to tread water. However, when looking over the side and down into the water, Richard Parker’s head is barely afloat, his ears are back, and his eyes shine with a shimmering, scared understanding of his impending end. Richard Parker is very ferocious and attempts to kill Pi on many occasions, but when it comes down to knocking him into the water and letting him drown, Pi doesn’t have it in his heart to let the poor animal go out that way.
Chalk up another victory to Lee and his crew here on the creation of Richard Parker, as he is completely computer generated, and yet you almost can’t tell. He is a stunning creature who blends flawlessly with the many environments of the story from the glassy, calm waters to the rough, stormy sea and even the vegetation of a mysterious island. You’re going to be hard pressed to find another film with this level of cinematography this year, unless The Hobbit, which comes out Dec. 14, can really blow the lid off.
Life of Pi is an enjoyable movie for anyone. I almost recommend it more to people who haven’t read the book because even though it might feel like a drama, it’s a pretty suspenseful journey of a young man, who must channel every last bit of faith, strength and spirituality he has left in order to survive the greatest lesson of his life.
I was slightly disappointed with the conclusion to Richard Parker and Pi’s friendship, but it was a necessary one in order for Pi to truly appreciate his animal accomplice. The small twist ending is a pure tip-of-the-hat to the art of storytelling and will surely widen eyes and force smiles. Don’t miss Ang Lee with another home run. Eight out of 10.