MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Drama/ Stars: Suraj Sharma, Richard Parker, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Vibish Sivakumar, Gérard Depardieu, Wang Po-chieh, Jag Huang, Andrea Di Stefano, Mythili Prakash, Raj Patel, Hadiqa Hamid, Elie Alouf/ Runtime: 127 minutes
It may be astonishing to learn this dear reader, but despite how widely popular it was when it was released and despite how much a few of my friends who I hold in very high regard kept delightfully pestering the heck out of me, I never really did have the desire to pick up and read Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and this is because, again in all honesty, the idea of a young boy having to co-exist with a ferocious tiger on a small lifeboat in the middle of the ocean just seemed way too simplistic to be worth reading especially when compared to rereading my time honored copy of Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. Flash-forward however to 2012 and upon hearing that it would be celebrated film helmer Ang Lee whose work I loved with not only Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but also with 1997’s The Ice Storm who would be the one to take on the seemingly thankless job of transforming this story, ocean setting and tiger included, into a movie and one in 3D at that, I can finally say that my curiosity was at long last earned. I am proud to say that it was well worth it. This is because with a phenomenal degree of skill in the cinematography department as well as the 3D making the world of this film feel almost real, Lee’s take on this story manages to be a marvel right from the get-go and only manages to function as the first inkling of the rest of the marvel that soon follows in what is undeniable proof of movie magic at work in a true spectacle that is both amazing yet relatable in its narrative and highly ambitious in the scope of just what it is wanting to show us and what exactly it is trying to convey.
The plot is as follows: Vowing to tell us a tale that will, in the words of the narrator, “make you believe in God”, the movie is the coming-of-age tale of a young man of Indian descent by the name of Pi Patel who sees himself as no less than an obedient believer in the faiths of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam alike. Now if this is quite mind-boggling to you then please don’t really think too hard on it since this film doesn’t really either. Rather witness as this concept of faith gets mixed into a rousing saga about both the power of the human spirit and how important the stories we tell in order to survive truly are whilst being molded by an older Pi into the form of telling his life story to a writer who is desperate need of inspiration. A story that goes all the way back to Pi’s birth to his time as a boy at the zoo his family owned and operated, and to a voyage on the sea that would change his life forever. Indeed this is because whilst in the process of making their way across the Pacific to get to America, Pi’s family and their pack of animals find themselves stuck in a deadly storm that soon sinks the vessel they are traveling on. Yet, despite his best efforts to find and get his family to safety, Pi winds up on the ship’s lifeboat on his own with the exception of 4 animals which soon dwindles down to one: a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Suffice it to say a battle of wills soon ensues which results in the tiger claiming the lifeboat as his turf whilst Pi is forced to build and survive on a makeshift floatation device that is tied to, but also a safe distance away from, the lifeboat. Yet intriguingly, and despite the fact that it could literally maul him to death at any point in time if it felt like it, we see that Pi actually manages to care for the tiger as much as himself claiming that there is something in the tiger’s eyes that extends beyond the simplistic explanation of animal instinct. Thus the question soon becomes: is Pi right and do animals truly have a soul or is this just the musing of a man who, due to a severe lack of human interaction, was reflecting his own inner humanity onto a savage and ruthless beast? That, dear reader, I will leave for you to figure out……
Now I think it is safe to say that this is just one of a significant amount of metaphysical queries that this film presents us with as we watch Pi square off not only with nature, but his ideas of both a higher power and himself as well. Yet at its heart, this is a survival tale that would make Jack London proud. Indeed not only do we see just how boring the open sea can be, but we also witness the peril of a storm at sea, and the optimism surrounding an island with both fresh water, delicious fruit, and meerkats for Richard Parker to devour (poor Timon). Above all though, there is also the unexpected bond between boy and tiger and the movie does a stunning job at turning Richard Parker into a surprisingly realistic yet also sympathetic character courtesy of the combined efforts of both CGI sorcerer at its finest and real animals and good luck being able to tell where one begins and the other ends. On a higher level of analysis however, this is a film which also functions as a symbolic conflict that can be seen in a variety of different lights depending on the person who is watching. Yes there most definitely is a debate to be had on the reliability, or lack thereof, of the narrator and the narrative he is telling us, but this is a movie which even asks us to question if the reliability of the narrator is even that integral and makes the claim that a “good tale” is always a finer thing than stone-cold fact. I mean I ask you dear reader: is it better to be inspired by a fabrication than to accept a truth you might not want to? Is this how the religions in the world choose to operate? Above all though: does it really matter that much if at all? Indeed with such riveting questions at play, I can now see why the source material was so favored amongst various book clubs, and I feel that the movie may open up similar avenues for people to debate over time and time again.
Now the pathos and suspense that keeps this movie both vibrant and alive manages to come to us courtesy solely from Pi’s task of staying alive not only with lack of either fresh water or food, but also to stay out of the stomach of either the sharks in the ocean or the starving tiger who is his highly reluctant traveling companion. So yes in all fairness the narrative could be seen by some as a little bit on the thin side, but be that as it may be there can be no denying that the suspense and degree of craftsmanship contained within that narrative is truly stunning. Indeed Lee’s incredible utilization of both the special effects department as well as staging this riveting yarn in the 3D format really helps to make this film a truly immersive outing that all but places you within the incredible world that this film presents us with. Indeed when Pi, pulled under the water, has to witness the ship sink into the inky black depths below him during the storm, we as an audience are able to relate to his feelings of both being alone and genuine loss as well as feeling like we are floating under the ocean with him. To that end, this is one film which also manages to function as a one of a kind cinematic ride as the camera not only enables audiences to feel like they are rolling with the tide, and being pulled by its motion, but also have their heart left racing courtesy of the claws and teeth of Richard Parker being able to go further off the screen than any film I’ve seen before thus making you feel like the tiger is right there in the room with you. To that end, it should be noted that Lee really has managed to raise the bar on just what 3D filmmaking can truly accomplish as not only does he give us a truly unrivaled spectacle that is truly a thing of wonder, but also by using that as a riveting backdrop for a quite analysis-worthy narrative that is held in place thanks to the incredible turns of its intriguing cast. Indeed even if their moments on screen lack both the suspense and grace of the majority of the film’s Cast Away at sea story, I am pleased to say that both Rafe Spall and Irrfan Kahn have a delightful chemistry and really give truly wonderful and heartwarming in certain respects performances. We also get terrific work from both Tabu and Adil Hussain as Pi’s mom and dad respectively as well as from Ayush Tandon as Pi as a little boy. Yet with all of that being said, the majority of the heavy lifting in this film comes to us courtesy of cinematic newcomer Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi through the vast majority of the film. Indeed whilst this new to the scene thespian doesn’t have the talent for subtlety that a lot of thespians Lee is known for casting possess in copious amounts, he does do a wonderful job of giving us a turn that is both vivid and relatable and seeing how a lot of his role depends on how well he works alongside a real or computer-generated tiger, I can honestly say that this is one performance that is nothing short of truly delightful and astonishing work.
All in all I think it is easy to say that quite plain and simply, Life of Pi is a truly glorious and remarkable cinematic accomplishment that most assuredly deserves your time. Indeed here is a true movie wonder which, if given the chance to see it in this format, is able to take what we have long considered about 3D in film to new heights as not only are the dreamlike settings of this film simply beautiful, but the ferocious yet intriguing tiger at the heart of the tale is truly something else entirely while all the while the film manages to conjure up for us an emotional and encouraging tale of the power of the human spirit and body to endure even in the toughest of conditions. Yet while to many it will not be the life-altering cinematic experience it so desperately attempts to be, it should not be said that this film isn’t at the very least thought-provoking and quite capable of creating a post-viewing discussion with whomever you choose to watch this with, but especially if they see the world differently than you do. Ultimately not only do I consider this to be a delightful slice of cinematic pie, but I also feel that this right here is perhaps the finest adaptation we as audiences could ever have thought possible from a story that up until this masterpiece had long been thought to be the kind of story that would never ever translate well up on the silver screen in every sense of the word. On a scale of 1-5 I give Life of Pi a solid 4 out of 5.