- Movie Rating -

Life of Pi (2012)

| November 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

Oh!  And what a life it is!  What a visual masterwork that Ang Lee has brought to the screen.  Here is a story brimming with excitement, adventure, poetry, and the strange whims of drifting destiny.  Here is the story of one life, one extraordinary man and his adventure to find himself and his way back home.  It is based on a best-seller by Yann Martel, but it reminds you of the stories of Rudyard Kipling.  It’s that good.

Life of Pi tells the life story of an Indian boy named Pi (Suraj Sharma) whose father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India.  We meet him in a series of opening passages that have a tone all of their own.  He was born with the name Piscine, a word which, when translated from French to English means “swimming pool”, but his parents overlook how the word looks on paper and so everyone calls him by an unflattering euphemism for urination.  He silences their mockery one day in the classroom by demonstrating his wizardry at mathematics by showing them the constant of 3.14.  From this, he shortens his name to Pi.  We follow his upbringing as he comes to question the nature of religion, settling on theories of Muslims, Hindus and Christians, trying to get a grasp on his purpose in life.  His mother wants him to explore, but his father wants him to be more practical and real.  These are lessons he will take with him all through life.

The zoo starts losing money, so Pi’s father informs the family that they have to sell the zoo and move to Canada.  They pack up their belongings and a few of the animals and board a Japanese freighter bound for their new home.  Then one night a storm hits that is so ferocious that it could have come from the Bible.  Pi falls into a 25-foot lifeboat and the freighter sinks.  All on board are apparently killed but Pi finds himself adrift on the Pacific briefly sharing the lifeboat with a zebra with a broken leg; a seasick orangutan; a hyena; and an ill-tempered Bengal tiger that turns the other animals into lunch (not to worry, it happens off-screen).  Pi builds himself a raft out of oars and life-preservers and sits tethered to the boat until he can figure out how to deal with the tiger who has taken up residence in his boat.

Much like Robert Zemekis’ Cast Away much of this movie deals with one man’s fight for survival.  The two are similar in their observations of trying to deal with survival under limited conditions, but this one takes place almost completely at sea.  Pi tries to keep himself hydrated with rainwater and freshwater that was stored aboard the lifeboat, and with the few rations that he has.  He also tries to keep the tiger – named Richard Parker – nourished with fish that he catches with his bare hands.  He knows that the beast will eventually get hungry enough to turn on him if he doesn’t keep its belly full.

The relationship with the tiger is not what we expect.  Pi has several chances to let the beast drown or starve to death but he refuses.  He admits, in his journal (which makes the excuse for voice-over narration), that the presence of the tiger is giving him instincts that he never felt before, like a new sense of alertness.  What is so brilliant about the relationship is that Ang Lee never makes the mistake of making the tiger sentimental.  This isn’t one of those bond-with-animal movies from Disney.  Lee never takes away the tiger’s savage nature and that brings the story tension and a sense of grounded reality.  A bond does form but it is more out of respect for the situation.  Their final moments together are as real as they are touching.

That reality is necessary because the film occasionally breaks away from the real world and allows us some moments that are surreal, like a visit to a living, breathing island that seems prepared to have Pi and Richard Parker for lunch.  Visually the movie is breathtaking.  There are shots here that are not just computer effects but are shown just to allow us some moments of pure beauty.  One shot in particular takes place underwater as we are looking up at the boat with the sky behind it.  There doesn’t seem to be any water there and Pi seems to just be floating on air.  The CG effects here are miraculous, especially in giving life to the tiger.  He is a savage beast, yes, but eventually we see him as Pi sees him, and we come to like him without finding him cuddly. This is the rare movie that respects animals by not making the mistake of trying to humanize them.

What happens in the film’s final act is a question left to the viewer over the validity of whether the story is real.  There are many questions to be raised about those moments and many that are difficult to discuss without giving away spoilers. The ending will illicit many deep discussions afterwards.

To watch Life of Pi is to observe how few films really consider their characters, how few consider the spiritual journey of the adventure they are undertaking.  A lot of films are about journeys of violence or revenge but can hardly be bothered to deal with what the characters have learned.  This movie is so much more than that.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.