Mark Reviews Movies

Life of Pi


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ang Lee

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu

MPAA Rating: PG (for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril)

Running Time: 2:07

Release Date: 11/21/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 20, 2012

There is no denying that Life of Pi is a gorgeous movie; it contains images of absolute beauty, both real and fantastical. Director Ang Lee offers both of those elements—reality and fantasy—with such clarity of vision that it becomes impossible to distinguish the two, and that, in essence, is the heart of the story.

Life of Pi tells a desperate tale about a teenage boy trapped in complete isolation, save for a beast that possesses both the capacity for his demise and, in the same token, the means of his salvation. The animal is a Bengal tiger that manages to escape into a life raft with the boy as their ship sinks into the Pacific Ocean.

The movie is never romantic about this animal; it does not imbue the creature with any sort of anthropomorphism. This is a wild beast that is as keen on its survival as the boy. In fact, the tiger has the upper hand in a way, as the boy is in a debate with himself over whether or not the tiger has the kind of consciousness one might associate with a human being. Many of his problems could be solved if he simply killed the animal, but on two occasions (once while the tiger is in captivity and another when it scratches for safety while in the water), the boy looks into its eyes and believes he sees something—a spark of emotion. Unlike the boy, there's no consideration for the tiger: It's more than willing to devour his cohabitant if necessary without a second thought.

As an exploration of survival under seemingly impossible terms, the premise—no matter how unlikely—is a doozy. The juxtaposition of a man who must become more animalistic and an animal that, at certain times, is mistakenly suspected of having human qualities is fascinating, even if it is not the central idea of David Magee's screenplay (based on Yann Martel's novel). Just as the visuals provide a rewarding sensory experience, the movie's unspoken ideas give us something to ponder. The problem in regards to the whole is that both of these components are secondary to the movie's primary conceptual purpose—a stated goal of such ungainly ambition that it is doomed to fail from the start.

In the present day, a writer (Rafe Spall) struggling for an idea approaches an older Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to seek out a story that the man's uncle insisted would make the author a believer in a higher power. Pi tells of his humble beginnings in Pondicherry, India, as a boy (Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon) whose full name "Piscine" was regularly mocked by his classmates, hence why he shortened it and learned hundreds of digits in the number pi to make the nickname stick.

Around the same time, Pi's father (Adil Hussain) bought a zoo, and Pi began to explore a variety of religions—becoming a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian. His mother (Tabu), a devout woman, appreciates this; his father, a skeptic, believes that believing in many things amounts to believing nothing.

As a teenager (Suraj Sharma), Pi and his family must move from India to Canada for financial reasons. One night while traveling on a cargo ship filled with the animals from the family zoo, Pi goes onto the deck to watch a rainstorm, and the ship begins sinking. Pi manages to escape via a lifeboat, joined by a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and, unbeknownst to Pi for a while, a tiger. After a bloody display of survival of the fittest, only Pi and the tiger remain.

Days and months pass with Pi creating a makeshift raft that he tethers to the lifeboat to stay out of harm's way. Food is scarce, given that every trip back to the boat could be his death. Only a survival handbook keeps Pi relatively sane with some connection to another human being, and he credits the tiger for his survival for keeping him in a constant state of fear.

There is little more to Pi's story than his evolving relationship with the tiger, as Pi tries to keep both of them fed and eventually to train the beast as well as he can. The tension remains high, but most of our involvement comes from Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda's use of the expansive yet limited setting (the vastness of a stretch of ocean, coupled with Pi's inability to go anywhere on it) to create some sublime images, such as the night and day skies reflected in the water and a long trek from the surface to the bottom of the ocean where everything in Pi's life rests in the sand.

The story's biggest misstep—and it's a critical one—comes from its framing device. Despite the obvious thematic core (that of survival against all odds), the movie makes a huge leap in the final act, placing the younger Pi as a storyteller in an extended monologue that offers a different, more logical explanation for what happened on the lifeboat. Pi's conclusion is not so much a sound philosophical or theological argument as it is a joke (It's meant to be hopeful but unintentionally comes across as quite cynical). No matter what the movie's virtues, Life of Pi ultimately drowns in its false aspirations.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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