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Review: Life of Pi – A survival story of a different stripe

Posted by on November 21, 2012 – 12:03 am

Life of Pi© 2012 Twentieth Century Fox
This movie review will make you believe in God. Well, probably not, but that’s the claim that the book and new film, Life of Pi, makes to its audience; and while neither medium actually fulfills on that somewhat pretentious promise, I figured, why not give it a shot myself.

What Life of Pi lacks in religious affirmation it makes up for with its original concept and ingenious story of adventure and survival on the high seas. The absolutely beautiful cinematography by Claudio Miranda and director Ang Lee’s army of visual and special effects artists have managed to film the unfilmable and bring this unlikely tale to stunning realistic life.

I love a good survival story and the Yann Martel book, Life of Pi (2001), is one of my all-time favorites. The gravy on Martel’s adventure tale is that it is neck deep in symbolism that will prompt thoughtful discussions of the story long after the last page is read. (Or in the case of the movie, long after the end credits roll.)

Life of Pi is the tale of a young boy named PiscinePi Patel (Suraj Sharma) whose family owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India. Pi is intelligent and curious, especially when it comes to religious beliefs; a subject he finds endlessly fascinating and he adheres to an amalgamation of faiths – a mindset that will come in handy as his adventure unfolds.

The story follows Pi’s young life until he becomes a teenager and his family decides to move to Canada, where they will sell-off their zoo animals and start a fresh life. The Patels and their menagerie board a Japanese merchant vessel for the trip overseas, but after just a few days out, the ship travels into a terrible storm and is capsized.

Life of Pi© 2012 Twentieth Century Fox
Pi miraculously survives the sinking of the ship and finds himself on a lifeboat, lost at sea, with some of his zoo’s animals; a hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan and an untamed Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker, which all made it onto the life raft. The boy spends over 200 days adrift at sea and not only does he have to survive the elements, sharks, loneliness and lack of food & water – he must also contend with the hungry and savage beast that occupies the little boat.

The survival at sea story is wonderfully told and visually incredible. I wouldn’t dare to give anything away, but the meaty middle section of this story is some of the most magical filmmaking you will ever see. It perfectly captures the essence of the popular and beloved novel and exceeded my very high expectations. Unfortunately, the narrative that Ang Lee chose to bookend the film with does not fare so well.

Life of Pi begins and ends with the adult Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan) being interviewed about his story by an author researching material for a new book. This is fine and somewhat in keeping with the original source material, but the way in which Lee pieces these portions of the movie together is extremely awkward and clunky – and the actor playing the writer (Rafe Spall) is absolutely awful.  This misstep by the director keeps the film from being a true masterpiece.

Life of Pi© 2012 Twentieth Century Fox
The only player you are likely to recognize in this movie is French actor Gerard Depardieu (The Man in the Iron Mask), who plays the surly mess-chef onboard the Japanese ship, but newcomer Suraj Sharma as the teenager Pi is the obvious star of this movie. This excellent young actor delivers a magnificent and heart-breaking performance as the desperate but resourceful Indian boy.

The other performance that deserves mention is the tiger, Richard Parker. While watching this movie I couldn’t tell you what was a real tiger from what was computer animated or conventional special effects puppetry (or some combination of the three) – and that’s the way it should be. The tiger is ferociously realistic and its character is terrifying and sympathetic at the same time. Can you give a CGI animated animal an Academy Award?

As mentioned, there is a lot of metaphorical imagery used in this film, and with the ending, as if to add insult to injury, the author character expounds on the story he has just heard and completely compromises the artistic integrity of the film. Come on Mister Lee, we still don’t know what some of the crazy imagery you threw at us in your Hulk movie means; but you unnecessarily spell out the pretty obvious symbolism in this film? That makes me very angry.

Life of Pi© 2012 Twentieth Century Fox
Even though Ang Lee does a great job with most of this film, the Life of Pi book is much better than the movie (as is so often the case with film adaptations of popular literary work.) Nonetheless, this movie is a gut-wrenching and thought-provoking survival story; and although it may not make you accept THE GOD, it might have you believing in the God of Amazing Special Effects.  Grade: 8/10

A note on 3D: Even though this film has been painstakingly shot with the latest 3D technology, I can’t recommend paying extra to see it in that format. As is most often the case with 3D, the improper projection luminance and the annoying dark glasses make for a distracting and muddy picture; and this film is too beautifully photographed to ruin it by watching through mud colored glasses. I plan to see it again in 2D – where it should be a much more pleasant experience.