A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012

RANK:  #4


2012, PG, 125 mins.

Pi: Suraj Sharma / Pi: (adult) Irrfan Khan / Cook: Gerard Depardieu / Writer: Rafe Spall

Directed by Ang Lee / Written by David Magee, based on the book by Yann Martel



Many ardent devotees of Canadian author Yann Martel’s 2001 novel LIFE OF PI believed it to be an unfilmable book.  After seeing the film adaptation I can surely see why they had such initial reservations.  The film’s – and Martel’s literary source material – largely concerns an Indian lad that is shipwrecked out in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days in a life boat that he shares with a rather ravenous Bengal tiger as his company.  On paper, that premise alone would prove daunting for just about any seasoned director 

Yet, what Ang Lee has accomplished with LIFE OF PI is nothing short of a masterstroke work in the annals of visually arresting motion pictures.  Not only does he thanklessly re-create the most famous moments from the novel, using authentic and evocative state-of-the-art CGI effects, but he also manages to dive head first into Martel’s themes of the power of faith and the struggle of human survival amidst incalculable odds.  This is one of the most thoughtfully constructed and immaculately rendered visual spectacles that I’ve ever seen.  Its images have an ethereal beauty that will stay with me for a long time, but the film’s meditation on its overt spiritual themes will certainly appease fans of the book as well. 

The movie begins relatively laid back and quaintly.  In the first of what is three basic parts, LIFE OF PI opens in the present and is told largely in flashbacks.  An adult Pi (Ifran Khan) recounts his larger-than-life odyssey to a writer (Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire) of growing up in India, his family’s attempts to re-locate to Canada, and his life-altering experiences of being stranded in the middle of the ocean with a tiger.  Pi - born and raised a Hindu - is actually named Piscine Molitor Patel, the first of which is taken from a swimming pool in France.  Unfortunately for Pi, many of his young classmates growing up with used the nickname “Pissing Patel” against him, largely because of how his first name is phonetically enunciated.  Tired of all of the direct insults from his peers – and some indirect ones from his teachers – hurled out at him on a daily basis, Piscine decides to change his name to the simpler “Pi.”    



These early preliminary scenes give us the background of young Pi.  Even though he was born a Hindu, he nonetheless begins to study and become fond of other world religions like Christianity and Islam, scrutinizing key aspects of them that he likes and homogenizes them in an effort to simply know and understand what makes God tick.  His father owns a zoo in Pandicherry (giving Pi an early introduction into the psychology of wild beasties), which has fallen on hard times, so he decides to uproot his business and family to Canada to begin anew, much to Pi’s consternation.  The family and zoo denizens pack a freighter and make the long journey to the Great White North, but very rough and treacherous seas near the Marinas Trench cause the vessel to overturn and sink, leaving Pi the only human survivor. 

I emphasize “human” because he does have a few other fellow non-human castaways - a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, yup, one Bengal tiger he affectionately named Richard Parker while back at home – all striving to survive on a very small lifeboat.  Obviously, having a tiger on board makes life miserable for PI, seeing as Mr. Parker eventually has his way with the other animals, leaving him all alone with the deeply anxious Pi.  Realizing that he cannot possible occupy the same scant 20-foot space with a very hungry predatory carnivore, Pi ingeniously builds an improvised raft that’s tied to the boat to segregate him from the beast.  As days stretch into weeks and then into months – and with food running short – Pi realizes that he must find a manner to establish himself as the authority figure on the boat…or risk being overcome and eaten to death.   Along the way, he finds himself challenging his own faith in God, hoping that the power of his beliefs will see him through this hellish ordeal. 

Clearly, the most fascinating sections of the film occur less than halfway through LIFE OF PI on that tiny lifeboat, which becomes a new home of sorts for Richard Parker and Pi.  I have read that the tiger is a combination of computer generated images and real life animals used on set, but the oftentimes shaky chasm between reality and fakery is miraculously blurred in the film; there are times where it’s intrinsically difficult to determine where the effects begin and where they end, which is an exultant testimony towards Lee and his effects artists.  So much movie magic has been lost over the years with the obvious artificiality of CGI effects, but the pioneering efforts here are outstanding for their innate realism.  If Richard Parker looked ever remotely bogus, then the whole effect of the film and dicey dynamic between him and PI would have been lost altogether, but there is rarely a moment where you doubt that this film’s tiger is not a living one. 

The film is also ripe with so many countless moments of visual innovation and spellbinding majesty, which is filmed by cinematographer Claudio Miranda with a painterly eye for detail, vibrant color, overall grace…and in 3D, no less.  Artificially enhancing a production with a multi-dimensional facelift is usually the kiss of qualitative death for a film, but Lee follows in the footsteps of James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Ridley Scott for being a real soulful auteur when it comes to shooting his production in native 3D to add levels of immersive spatial depth to the frame.  Not many movies out there are greatly benefited or enhanced by being in 3D, but LIFE OF PI – perhaps even more so that AVATAR, HUGO, and PROMETHEUS – is one of the rare ones where the whole storytelling process is complimented and assisted by 3D instead of being a financially motivated slave to it.  

There are so many scenes of scope and power here, like the aforementioned shipwreck, which is perhaps the most painstakingly envisioned and executed ones since TITANIC.  Then there are sequences involving Pi and Parker on the treacherous waters (one involving a glowing ocean at dusk that showcases a legion of bioluminescent life highlighting the water surface like a vast and indefinite nightlight).  Then there’s an awe-inspiring sight of a limitlessly gargantuan whale exploding from the ocean to the wide-eyes of Pi, not to mention a spectacular scene of flying fish that catapult from the water and over the salivating mouths of two castaways.  Perhaps most amazing is a mysterious island that Pi discovers that seems positively alive with what appears to be tens of thousands of meerkats scurrying about over the landscape.   LIFE OF PI is a film of immeasurable photographic beauty to be savored throughout.  

It sometimes easy to overlook the fine performances in a film of such superlative technical artifice, but young 17-year-old Suraj Sharma has a thespian task as complicated as, say, what Tom Hanks endured in a similarly themed CASTAWAY.  He has to not only convey Pi’s sense of desolation, fear, and deeply rooted uncertainty while being stranded for so terribly long, but he also has to plausible perform in sequences with the tiger during which nothing was probably there, only to be added in later with special effects.  It’s the emotional genuineness that Sharma exudes here that allows for the audiences’ constant buy-in and hypnotic rooting interest in him and his plight.  Considering the endless parade of physical and mental hardships that Pi endures while being stranded on the Ocean, he remains a pillar of spiritual strength and vigor that becomes astonishingly heartening.   

Lee’s film has some minor foibles, like a fairly laborious setup that is perhaps a bit too leisurely in establishing the main castaway storyline, and the whole framing device of Pi in the present recanting his miraculous tale of survival at sea is not very novel or compelling.   Yet, there is just so much to simple drink in and marvel at here that those minor nitpicks tend to fade easily away with time.  Lee, if anything, is a director of such remarkable tastes: he’s tackled martial arts fantasies (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), period films (THE ICE STORM and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), super hero auctioneers (HULK), and gay-themed romances (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN).  LIFE OF PI could not be anymore different than any film on his illustrious resume; it’s a landmark milestone in 3D and visual effects-heavy escapist fantasy, but the fact that it also has time to explore Martel’s sobering and moving themes of self-discovery, endurance, and belief in oneself and a higher power are just as dramatically enthralling.   

So very few films have moved the heart as well as thrilled the eyes with a sense of endless wonder; LIFE OF PI is just one of those uncommon examples.

  H O M E