Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

When you look into the eyes of a tiger all you see is your own emotions reflected back at you.”

Pi Patel’s father makes this statement in order that his son knows not to romanticize nature and imbue animals with human feelings. It’s a good lesson to teach a child growing up in a zoo in India, and a lesson which turns out to be more important than his father could possibly know. Not only will the tiger in question go on to play a prominent role in Pi’s life, but his young son will soon come face to face with nature at its most merciless and cruel.

Based on the beloved book by Yann Martel, Ang Lee’s big screen adaptation of Life of Pi translates the book’s sweeping adventure to the screen as a steady stream of stunning imagery. That Lee doesn’t sacrifice the book's searching philosophical spirit despite the grand scope of this undertaking makes this film more impressive still. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the director of The Ice Storm and Sense and Sensibility didn’t misplace this tale's heart amid the spectacle. Yet it is unusual to see what is essentially a big-budget adventure story which screams “Expensive” in every frame that somehow retains the peaceful soul of a Zen parable. 

Compared to the flashy schmaltz-fest that was last year's War Horse this is practically Au Hasard Balthazar.

The plot of Life of Pi is easily outlined. After a colorful prologue which shows Pi (full name: Piscine Molitor Patel) coming of age as a bright, curious child in India his father decides their zoo is no longer profitable and that the animals are to be sold. Pi, now a teen played by Suraj Sharma, sets sail with his family for Canada on an ocean liner with many of the zoo’s animals along for the ride. When disaster strikes and the ship goes down (a thrilling, jaw-dropping sequence) Pi’s lifeboat ends up as a mini-Noah’s ark complete with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and a full grown Royal Bengal tiger. 

Life of Pi gets away with being both a spiritual film and a Hollywood blockbuster because the imagery is are so consistently, gobsmackingly astonishing. The effects work is on par with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy as some of the best I've ever seen. There are too many moments of breathtaking visual poetry to list, but highlights include a moment where the lifeboat is surrounded by a school of bioluminescent sea life, to the frightening run in with a cascade of flying fish that batters the lifeboat like enemy fire in a war movie.

The survival at sea material which makes up the bulk of the movie is uncommonly absorbing, largely because the premise is such an instantly fascinating one. Lee wisely doesn’t let the story's hints of magic realism detract from the reality of the situation. At no point do Pi and the Tiger become fast friends or develop a mutual understanding. Quite the contrary, it is made perfectly clear that the tiger is willing to eat Pi the first moment it’s convenient, maybe sooner. The screenplay doesn't skimp on supplying nuts and bolts answers to the question, “How exactly does one survive on a lifeboat with a full grown, ill-tempered Royal Bengal Tiger for months on end?”

While I was awed by its imagery and absorbed by its story, I confess my emotions remained curiously unstirred by the whole journey. At some point, the allegorical nature of Life of Pi upstaged the story for me. Symbolism is a great way to engage my brain, but an ineffective path to my heart. The best of films stir the soul first and the mind second. A good comparison would be to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which had many levels of meaning, all of which I couldn’t have cared less about on first viewing. I was too enthralled by the unfolding story to care about its larger themes and messages. Only after it was over did I appreciate the brilliant construction of del Toro's fable. This isn't the case with Pi which hammers on its allegorical meaning a bit loudly at times.

Even if doesn’t rank with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain as one of Lee’s best, it is still a minor miracle that a version of Life of Pi this good got made. Even if the journey is a little rough at times - the movie keeps the book's awkward, frustrating ending, for one thing - it is still a movie that should be seen for its gorgeous visuals, its spiritual pondering, and its skillfully told and wildly original tale of survival. It should be seen if for no other reason than there is nothing else out there quite like Life of Pi.

Verdict: 7 out of 10


  1. I haven't seen this film yet, so I have no comments, but bravo to you for making what I imagine will go down in history books as the one and only comparison between Life of Pi and Au Hasard Balthazar.

  2. So jealous you've seen this. I finished the book around a week ago and it was just fantastic - best book I've ever read. Great review! Nice blog also.

  3. Nice review,Michael.Glad to hear good things of Life of Pi,I hope the Ang Lee I loved is back.

  4. thanks for sharing.

  5. Funny you compare Pan's with Pi since Pi steals the same ending though Radio Flyer did it before both.

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  7. This book is renowned for its beautiful literature and the amount of depth and truth an author can place in his writing is ironic.

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