Life of Pi is the latest film from director Ang Lee and is based on the acclaimed 2001 novel written by Yann Martel. While it took a very long time to reach the silver screen, having had a troubled developmental process, it was both worth the wait and an absolutely breathtaking piece of work. Quite possibly Ang Lee’s finest outing to date, it is an adventure drama that is an absolute must-see. This is not just my opinion but also a commonly held one, having a overall rating of 88% on Metacritic and being touted as a legitimate awards contender. I am happy to report that at the time of this post, the film has made back 90% of its 120 million dollar production cost and is looking like it will have a very long shelf life.
The story is one of faith and survival amidst incredibly challenging circumstances. Specifically speaking however, it is about a teenage boy nicknamed “Pi” who is trapped on a life raft adrift in the ocean with a bengal tiger named “Richard Parker”. How he and this ferocious beast become stranded in such a way, is what comprises the film’s opening sequences.
A novelist from Canada who is residing in India is struggling to find his next story. While lamenting this fact to a local, the man he is speaking with informs him “you are a Canadian writer in India seeking a story, well I know an Indian residing in Canada who has a story to tell”. It is this driving reason that the writer returns to his homeland and seeks out an adult Piscine (Pi) Molitor Patel and convinces him to share his life’s tale.
While serving as the front end framing of Pi’s journey, the film transitions from present day to the French Quarter of India at the time of Pi’s youth. As a boy, Pi takes a particular interest in his fathers work operating the local zoo. During a period of political unrest in their Indian province, his father makes the determination that they would be better served moving to Canada and books passage on a freighter. It is in North America where he will sell his animals and build a new life for his family there, but unfortunately things do not go as planned. Through Pi’s curios nature, he finds himself on the ship’s deck during a heavy storm which wreaks incredible havoc and eventually sinks the vessel. He is the only one to survive after being overthrown and near a wayward lifeboat. Though some of the zoo animals make it out alive, Pi’s family and the crew unfortunately do not.
Pi soon finds himself occupying the emergency raft with an injured zebra, orangutan whose lost its young, a feral hyena, and the aforementioned tiger.
The only animal to survive the initial first few days is “Richard Parker” and it is through this high-seas journey that Pi learns to co-exist with the beast while simultaneously struggling to survive. Caring for and training the animal is what keeps Pi occupied during the long days and alive while hopelessly adrift for months. This harrowing journey results in the growth of a mutually shared bond between the two which ultimately culminates with them finding a uninhabited island and eventually washing up on occupied shores (after resuming their journey out at sea).
When visited by insurance agents at the hospital Pi is recovering in, he tells them of this fantastic story, which they of course do not believe. He then makes up a tale correlating the animals to fellow passengers of the ship, so they have something in which they can report to their “higher-ups”. Upon this point in the narrative, the film doubles back to the novelist’s interview, who notes the similarities between the two tales. Pi then asks the writer which he prefers, and when selecting the one containing the Tiger, Pi responds “and so it is with God”. The interview ends with a glance at the insurance papers that Pi has kept all these years, which denote that the agents also ended up selecting the more fantastic tale, dovetailing into the films belief in the power of faith.
To say this is difficult narrative to crack, would be an understatement. Ang Lee miraculously is able to do so without compromising the source materials integrity. Credit must also go to David Magee, who wrote the screenplay. While an interpretation of a best-selling book, the story itself does not present much flexibility in allowing the material to be “tailored”.
Not only this, the film is shot in a manner that is so beautiful and effective, it adds something words on a piece of paper can rarely achieve. Everything from the computer generated tiger and color palate to the use of 3-D brings something awe-inspiring and visually intoxicating to the screen. This easily is a contender for best VFX, adapted screenplay, and cinematography in the awards circuit. Most importantly each shot and the directorial selection better informs the viewer and elevates the material.
Where the film may lack is in its structure and principal lead, Suraj Sharma. Structure being what it is, the bookend interview aspect is a bit clunky, but it serves its purpose. Suraj meanwhile beat out thousands of applicants from all over the world for the role of the teenage Pi, and he wasn’t even intending on auditioning. Rather, he was there in support of someone else who sought out the role. It should also be noted that at a 127 minute run time, it does peak and valley ever so slightly in second act.
Ultimately, Life of Pi is both a spectacle and spectacular. A true cinematic achievement that proves when the right pieces come together, a movie is much more than moving pictures with audio, but a transcendent experience that will entertain, enlighten, engage, and leave you wholly satisfied.
4 Bengal Tigers out of 5.
> Here is a long read on the troubled development process Life of Pi had from Inside Movies. They are absolutely correct in stating “Ang Lee” saved this film and I am thankful that he did. http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/11/23/how-ang-lee-saved-life-of-pi/
> Below are three links to featurettes on various aspects that went into the making of the movie, courtesy of Collider.
> While I did not touch on the religious or faith aspects in detail, this write up from The American Conservative makes some good points.
> How the casting selections were made via backstage.com and emanuellevy.com.
> The author of the source material, Yann Martel, comments on the film to the Daily Mail.