Life of Pi (2012) / Adventure-Drama

MPAA rated: PG for thematic content and scary action sequences
Length: 127 min.

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Gautam Belur, Ayush Tandon, Tabu
Small role: Gerard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: David Magee (based on the novel by Yann Martel)

Life of Pi 2012Life of Pi is an adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel by acclaimed director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk) and screenwriter David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Finding Neverland).  The story is told mostly in flashback mode, as the older Pi (Khan, The Amazing Spider-Man) - he shortened his name from Piscine (named after his father's love of swimming pools, in French) due to being teased at school for its similarity to the word 'pissing') - recounts the events of his childhood to a visiting writer (Spall, Prometheus), growing up the son of a zookeeper in the French region of India.  Pi was raised a Hindu, but eventually came to also know and believe in facets of Christianity and Islam, shaping his belief system and outlook on the world in ways many never experience.

The main part of his story occurs when Pi is a teenager (Sharma), as the family is traveling by Japanese freighter to their intended new home in Canada only to have the vessel sink in a wreck.  While the rest of his family go down in the ocean, Pi manages to survive onto one of the lifeboats, except he has to share it with a few of the animals that have also managed to escape the ship and made their way on board the small craft -- a wounded zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (called such, due to an amusing clerical error).  As they are animals doing what animals rightly do, not surprisingly, it soon comes down to just the Bengal tiger on the boat, while Pi does what he can to figure out how to survive with the ferocious (and hungry) beast on board. 

Life of Pi is an adventure tale, though one authored with metaphors and great amounts of subtext, some of which is revealed toward the end of the telling of the fantastical tale of how a boy survives over 200 days at sea alone with a tiger.  Religious imagery and literary allusions abound, as Pi searches for meaning to what he sees around him, believing it to be a test of his will from higher powers that be.

Although it is a wonderful story, beautifully told even if the film doesn't capture the entire essence of Martel's complex novel, what most will remember of Life of Pi after having seen it is the strikingly gorgeous imagery throughout the film, stunningly captured by cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Tron Legacy, Benjamin Button).  Such moments as Pi's discovery of a shipwreck still lit on the way to the ocean floor entombing his family underwater, encounters with whales, massive storms, and, in one surreal scene, the discovery of a strange, carnivorous island, all sticks in the mind long after the experience of watching such a magnificent adventure, especially for those who are able to see it in its intended format of 3D.  It should be noted, while the animals are mostly CGI, they are realistic to the point where the difference is very slight between how one imagines they might behave in real life versus their on-screen counterparts.

In his first role in a motion picture, Suraj Sharma, as the teenage Pi aboard the boat, delivers a fantastic, complex performance, especially considering that most of what he is thinking cannot find a proper voice without another human on board, and the metamorphosis he undertakes -- physically, emotionally, spiritually -- as he goes on each day without ever knowing what awaits him, with each day going by without even a hint of possible rescue.  With no family to guide him, and his prayers largely going by unanswered, the boy must become a man in a hurry in order to survive, and to survive, he must become more ferocious than the beast on board to gain respect.  It is quite a powerful example of maturation amid tragedy, and of how faith can play an important role in survival under the most dire of circumstances.

Profoundly uplifting in many ways, yet profoundly tragic in others, Life of Pi is one of those films that stays with you for days after seeing it, not only for the awe-inspiring imagery, but for the philosophical ruminations of the underlying metaphors underneath.  Ang Lee has crafted a work of art, and has done so out of a book that many had said could never be translated to film.  It has, and it emerges a beautifully told story for the ages.
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©2013 Vince Leo