A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012
LIFE OF PI
2012, PG, 125 mins.
2012, PG, 125 mins.
Pi: Suraj Sharma / Pi: (adult) Irrfan Khan /
Cook: Gerard Depardieu / Writer: Rafe Spall
ardent devotees of Canadian author Yann Martel’s 2001 novel LIFE OF PI
believed it to be an unfilmable book.
After seeing the film adaptation I can surely see why they had such
The film’s – and Martel’s literary source material –
largely concerns an Indian lad that is shipwrecked out in the Pacific
Ocean for 227 days in a life boat that he shares with a rather ravenous
Bengal tiger as his company. On paper, that
premise alone would prove daunting for just about any seasoned director
what Ang Lee has accomplished with LIFE OF PI is nothing short of a
masterstroke work in the annals of visually arresting motion pictures.
Not only does he thanklessly re-create the most famous moments from
the novel, using authentic and evocative state-of-the-art
CGI effects, but he also manages to dive head first into Martel’s
themes of the power of faith and the struggle of human survival amidst
incalculable odds. This is
one of the most thoughtfully constructed and immaculately rendered visual
spectacles that I’ve ever seen. Its images have an ethereal beauty that will stay with me for
a long time, but the film’s meditation on its overt spiritual themes
will certainly appease fans of the book as well.
movie begins relatively laid back and quaintly.
In the first of what is three basic parts, LIFE OF PI opens in the
present and is told largely in flashbacks.
An adult Pi (Ifran Khan) recounts his larger-than-life odyssey to a writer
(Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire) of
growing up in India, his family’s attempts to re-locate to Canada, and
his life-altering experiences of being stranded in the middle of the ocean
with a tiger. Pi - born and raised a
Hindu - is actually named Piscine Molitor
Patel, the first of which is taken from a swimming pool in France.
Unfortunately for Pi, many of his young classmates growing up with
used the nickname “Pissing Patel” against him, largely because of how
his first name is
phonetically enunciated. Tired
of all of the direct insults from his peers – and some indirect ones from
his teachers – hurled out at him on a daily basis, Piscine decides
to change his name to the simpler “Pi.”
early preliminary scenes give us the background of young Pi. Even though he
was born a Hindu, he nonetheless begins to study and become fond of other
world religions like Christianity and Islam, scrutinizing key aspects of
them that he likes and homogenizes them in an effort to simply know and
understand what makes God tick. His
father owns a zoo in Pandicherry (giving Pi an early introduction into the
psychology of wild beasties), which has fallen on hard times, so he
decides to uproot his business and family to Canada to begin anew, much to
Pi’s consternation. The
family and zoo denizens pack a freighter and make the long journey to the
Great White North, but very rough and treacherous seas near the Marinas
Trench cause the vessel to overturn and sink, leaving Pi the only human
emphasize “human” because he does have a few other fellow non-human
castaways - a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and, yup, one Bengal tiger he
affectionately named Richard Parker while back at home – all striving to
survive on a very small lifeboat. Obviously,
having a tiger on board makes life miserable for PI, seeing as Mr. Parker
eventually has his way with the other animals, leaving him all alone with
the deeply anxious Pi. Realizing
that he cannot possible occupy the same scant 20-foot space with a very
hungry predatory carnivore, Pi ingeniously builds an improvised raft
that’s tied to the boat to segregate him from the beast.
As days stretch into weeks and then into months – and with food
running short – Pi realizes that he must find a manner to establish
himself as the authority figure on the boat…or risk being overcome and
eaten to death. Along
the way, he finds himself challenging his own faith in God, hoping that
the power of his beliefs will see him through this hellish ordeal.
the most fascinating sections of the film occur less than halfway through
LIFE OF PI on that tiny lifeboat, which becomes a new home of
sorts for Richard Parker and Pi. I
have read that the tiger is a combination of computer generated images and
real life animals used on set, but the oftentimes shaky chasm between reality and
fakery is miraculously blurred in the film; there are times where it’s
intrinsically difficult to determine where the effects begin and where
they end, which
is an exultant testimony towards Lee and his effects artists.
So much movie magic has been lost over the years with the obvious
artificiality of CGI effects, but the pioneering efforts here are
outstanding for their innate realism.
If Richard Parker looked ever remotely bogus, then the whole effect
of the film and dicey dynamic between him and PI would have been lost
altogether, but there is rarely a moment where you doubt that this
film’s tiger is not a living one.
film is also ripe with so many countless moments of visual innovation and
spellbinding majesty, which is filmed by cinematographer Claudio Miranda
with a painterly eye for detail, vibrant color, overall grace…and in
3D, no less. Artificially
enhancing a production with a multi-dimensional facelift is usually the
kiss of qualitative death for a film, but Lee follows in the footsteps of
James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, and Ridley Scott for being a real soulful
auteur when it comes to shooting his production in native 3D to add levels
of immersive spatial depth to the frame.
Not many movies out there are greatly benefited or enhanced by
being in 3D, but LIFE OF PI – perhaps even more so that AVATAR,
HUGO, and PROMETHEUS
– is one of the rare ones where the whole storytelling process
is complimented and assisted by 3D instead of being a financially
motivated slave to it.
are so many scenes of scope and power here, like the aforementioned
shipwreck, which is perhaps the most painstakingly envisioned and executed
ones since TITANIC. Then
there are sequences involving Pi and Parker on the treacherous waters (one
involving a glowing ocean at dusk that showcases a legion of
bioluminescent life highlighting the water surface like a vast and
indefinite nightlight). Then there’s
an awe-inspiring sight of a limitlessly gargantuan whale exploding from
the ocean to the wide-eyes of Pi, not to mention a spectacular scene of flying fish
that catapult from the water and over the salivating mouths of two
castaways. Perhaps most
amazing is a mysterious island that Pi discovers that seems positively alive
with what appears to be tens of thousands of meerkats scurrying about over
the landscape. LIFE OF
PI is a film of immeasurable photographic beauty to be savored throughout.
sometimes easy to overlook the fine performances in a film of such
superlative technical artifice, but young 17-year-old Suraj Sharma has a
thespian task as complicated as, say, what Tom Hanks endured in a
similarly themed CASTAWAY. He
has to not only convey Pi’s sense of desolation, fear, and deeply rooted
uncertainty while being stranded for so terribly long, but he also has to
plausible perform in sequences with the tiger during which nothing was
probably there, only to be added in later with special effects.
It’s the emotional genuineness that Sharma exudes here that
allows for the audiences’ constant buy-in and hypnotic rooting interest
in him and his plight. Considering
the endless parade of physical and mental hardships that Pi endures while
being stranded on the Ocean, he remains a pillar of spiritual strength and
vigor that becomes astonishingly heartening.
film has some minor foibles, like a fairly laborious setup that is perhaps
a bit too leisurely in establishing the main castaway storyline, and the
whole framing device of Pi in the present recanting his miraculous tale of
survival at sea is not very novel or compelling.
Yet, there is just so much to simple drink in and marvel at
here that those minor nitpicks tend to fade easily away with time.
Lee, if anything, is a director of such remarkable tastes: he’s
tackled martial arts fantasies (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON), period
films (THE ICE STORM and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), super hero auctioneers
(HULK), and gay-themed romances (BROKEBACK
MOUNTAIN). LIFE OF PI
could not be anymore different than any film on his illustrious resume;
it’s a landmark milestone in 3D and visual effects-heavy escapist
fantasy, but the fact that it also has time to explore Martel’s sobering
and moving themes of self-discovery, endurance, and belief in oneself and
a higher power are just as dramatically enthralling.
So very few films have moved the heart as well as thrilled the eyes with a sense of endless wonder; LIFE OF PI is just one of those uncommon examples.