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The Life of Pi (2012)

December 18, 2012



written by: David Magee 

produced by: Gil Netter, Ang Lee and David Womark

directed by: Ang Lee

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

runtime: 127 min. 

U.S. release date: November 21, 2012


All I could think of after watching Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” was thankful I was M. Night Shyamalan didn’t get his hands on it. At one point, that’s where this adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling 2001 novel was heading. But, instead of directing a movie about a boy surviving the treachery of the Pacific Ocean, he opted for “The Lady in the Water”, and we all know how that turned out. There were a couple other attached to direct, Alfonso Cuaron was one, before Lee was chosen. Although I have enjoyed the trajectory of the Oscar-winning director’s career path, I had my reservations about how such a book could be brought to the big-screen. Those reservations turned to anticipation when I saw the breathtaking 3D trailer for the film in June. It was clearly a taste of things to come.

The story of Pi Patel is told by himself, as an adult (played by the fantastic Irrfan Khan “The Namesake”) who lives in Canada as a religion professor. He is a self-proclaimed “Catholic-Hindu” sought out by a young writer (a hipster Rafe Spall, used as an inconsequential narrative tool) who was told by Pi’s charismatic uncle (technically, a family friend) that Pi has an incredible story to tell, one that will make anyone believe in God.

The patient Pi recounts his tale, one he has probably told countless times, of when he was a young boy (the wonderful Ayush Tandon as 12 year-old Pi and Suraj Sunjab as the 16 year-old we spend the majority of the film with) growing up in Pondicherry, India, with his older brother and their zookeeper parents. He tells the entertaining origin of his name, how he fell in love with a girl in his teens and how he’s always searched for meaning in life, by studying out and practicing a variety of religions. Everything changes for Pi, when his father (Adil Hussain) decides to uproot their family, animals as well, to Canada. Pi is told greater opportunities await them and that a better price will be paid for the animals in North America.




This isn’t just mere set-up for what we know to be the bulk of the story. There is absorbing character development here, telling a story of intriguing people living in an intoxicating setting. The narrative may weave from the present storytelling Pi, to the immersive past he explores, but it’s done in such a symbiotic manner that we never feel pulled out of either period.

Not long after an altercation the family has with a surly sea cook (Gerard Depardieu), the Japanese sea cruiser they are on capsizes in a violent storm in the Pacific. Through no intentional action of his own, a tossed and concerned Pi survives the travesty, finding himself on board a lifeboat. He is not alone though. (If he was, it just wouldn’t be as interesting). Pi is accompanied by a zebra, a orangutang, a hyena and an adult bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Now imagine that.

You’ll find it as no surprise (and I’m really not giving anything away) that the occupants of the lifeboat wind up being the vegetarian Pi and the carnivorous Richard Parker. This is a tiger that Pi has been both in fear of and in awe of since he was a child, and now here they are adrift on a sea of uncertainty. Pi goes from understandable panic to guilt-ridden distress to a gradual resourcefulness combined with a stubborn faith that leads him to a determined resolve. His fear of Richard Parker keeps him alive and alert and eventually the an understanding is thrust upon the two of them.

Since Pi obviously survives the elements and his wild companion, the rest of the film is centered on his perilous journey and how the two eventually come to an understanding. Lee and screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) know that this is the most captivating part of Pi’s life story and they thankfully take their time with it. There’s no reliance on musical montages or pretentious emotional beats as one would typically find in such a survival story. Instead we’re given a coming-of-age tale, a traditional storytelling approach told in a very non-traditional manner.




With help from cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) Lee is able to craft a realistic albeit magical feel to the film. On a technical level alone, with all the CGI manipulation and imagery, this is an impressive, beautiful piece of work. This is the rare film that must be seen in 3D to get its full effect.  Lee and Miranda are mindful of the lighting in their use of 3D and never goes it feel overdone or  gimmicky. 3D is a fitting tool in portraying the dangers and beauty of their ocean journey.   From a whale bursting out of a mass of bioluminescent life, to a frenzied sequence of flying fish (one of my favorites) and on to a curious island of meerkats, “Life of Pi” offers a plethora of wonders.

That being said, there is slight disappointment in the way the rescued Pi tells his story to curious Japanese reporters. It didn’t seem necessary or satisfying and actually felt somewhat incomplete. Also, although “Life of Pi” is a spiritual film, nothing is ever heavy-handed like some have complained of. The questions and challenges to Pi’s faith is contextual and understandable, considering his general disposition and all that we see him go through. It’s not out to place the audience in any spiritual crossroad, if anything it may cause us to appreciate everything that is greater than ourselves and how we are often  in situations that are beyond our control.

One thing I must address though, is the film’s rating. Due to the films intensity of survival peril and violence, I can’t recommend this for every child under thirteen. Certainly older children could (and should) watch the film, as it provides a much-needed non-Caucasian young protagonist for them to follow.

“The Life of Pi” will transport you, if you allow it, as it tells its tale of wonder and spiritual curiosities in amazing detail and visual splendor. Every frame of film is artful and meticulously crafted. It is just as exhaustively thrilling as it is peacefully meditative, utilizing some of the best 3D I’ve seen all year. Sure, it may help if you’re like me, a film enthusiast drawn to films that offer a travelogue element and/or ones that focus on survival stories, but I would wager that out of all the films you see this year, this will be one of the most memorable.





RATING: ***1/2



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