Movie Review: Life of Pi
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
“The Life of Pi” might not be the best movie you see this year (or this month), but it is a visually stunning and singular work of art.
Director Ang Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda use 3-D to create a submersing world in this coming-of-age allegory. The film is based on Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel that many imagined impossible to translate to screen.
While the movie, written by David Magee (“Finding Neverland”), does not intrigue with ideas of religion and man’s place in the world with the same deftness as the novel, it still thrills with its visual language.
A conversation between a wise and weary man named Pi (Irrfan Khan) and a blocked writer (Rafe Spall) looking for a story serves at the point of entry into the fantastical tale. The writer has been told that Pi’s story will reveal the existence of God. It’s a nervy gambit on the part of the filmmakers, a lofty goal that almost no film could accomplish.
Fortunately once we enter the story, the unattainable storytelling goal gives way to a lush visual tapestry.
Lee introduces audiences to a sumptuous world of exploding color in Pondicherry, India, a former French Colony, where Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel lives with his parents and brother on the family’s zoo. The first act of the movie establishes Pi as a clever child full of curiosity. His fascination leads to trouble with his father when Pi attempts to get near the family’s caged tiger, offering a teachable moment wherein the father demonstrates the power and danger of the natural world.
When his classmates tease him for the name Piscine, which offers all manner of schoolyard jokes, the crafty child changes his name to Pi. The never-ending number is symbolic in that it speaks to the film’s themes of infiniteness and the idea of a circle of life.
Much to his rational father’s dismay, a teenage Pi takes a strong interest in religion, cherry-picking comforting and instructive pieces of Hindu, Islamic and Christian teachings. Pi says his spiritual smorgasbord offers him the best opportunity to know and love God.
But just as Pi gets introduced to the idea of romantic love, his life is upended when his father decides to move the family to Canada. They travel on a Japanese freighter that meets with a horrific storm that sinks the ship.
The danger and unease of the catastrophic event engulf the audience, as Lee’s camera jilts and rocks with the sinking ship. The vivid scene captures the enormity of the event with a visceral realism that seems almost impossible for something rendered with a computer.
Pi awakens from the nightmarish event on a lifeboat. He is the lone human survivor. But he is not alone. He is joined on the raft by some zoo escapees, including a diabolic hyena, a frantic zebra, a sad orangutan, a rat and a tiger with the odd name of Richard Parker. The origins of the tiger’s name represent a bit of joyous humor scattered through the film that gives the heavy tale a sense of buoyancy.
But this is no Calvin and Hobbes story of friendship. As Pi learned in India, the natural world is not something easily tamed. You can’t reach out and pet animals, even if you sense they have a soul. A rushed and alarming display of natural selection winnows the boat party down to Pi and Richard Parker.
Pi realizes the life-threatening danger his boat-mate represents and must distance himself from the tiger and think of subtle ways to manipulate it in order to co-exist. In addition to protecting himself, Pi must also learn to feed and hydrate himself and the tiger as he drifts for more than 200 days. The relationship metaphorically represents Pi’s need to control his own fears and tame the animal nature in himself.
Pi’s efforts to avoid and sustain the tiger deliver frenzied action in such close quarters. The scenes of Richard Parker making threatening attempts at Pi’s life make for some nerve-jangling scenes, and the 3D filmmaking puts the ferocious clamor right in your face. Nature’s power also reveals itself in tempestuous scenes of massive storms that threaten Pi and Parker’s lives.
The chaotic scenes are balanced by some of the most beautiful representations of the natural world. The glassy, placid ocean reflects the enormity of the sky. A nighttime shot of an electric ocean teeming with majestic creatures enchants with an ethereal glow.
His desperation in the face sublime beauty and his own mortality lead Pi to turn himself over to God, but the religious aspects touched on early in the film largely dissipate from the narrative once at sea.
The months at sea take an obvious toll on Pi’s sanity and physical well-being. First-time actor Suraj Sharma wears all of the pain and exhaustion on his tortured face, and finds excellent rhythms in a mania blended of sadness and glee. But outside one or two scenes, the predicament on the boat feels a little too polished and lacks a rawness you expect from life-threatening situations of survival and keeps the film from connecting on an emotional level. That restraint from more graphic details does, however, make for a more family-friendly film, and I imagine children will enjoy “Pi” as much, if not more than, their parents.
That same tidiness from the harrowing boat scenes accompanies a rushed third act that feels separate from the film’s natural pacing earlier in the story. The conversation between Pi and the writer at the story’s conclusion is meant to put a bow on the story about man’s conflict and harmony with nature while shoehorning in some deeper meaning. But the plot device is hackneyed and suffers from wooden acting from Spall.
The end of the film never delivers on the promise that began the story, and the movie seems unduly proud of itself for revealing a rather mild wisdom. “The Life of Pi” never fully reaches the lofty philosophic goal it sets for itself. Nevertheless, it is an engaging and exciting tale and a magnificent achievement of visual storytelling that will likely be held up as a model for what can be achieved through the marriage of imagination and technology.