A boy and a tiger are adrift in the SS Symbolism in the whimsical Life of Pi, a beautiful and brilliant painting of a movie.
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) grew up at his parents zoo in India. Named “Piscine” after a pool in France, he shortens it to Pi after one to many “pissing” taunts. As life in India gets precarious, his parents decide to move the family (Pi, his mom, his dad and his older brother) to Canada. While they don’t own the land that the zoo is on, they do own the animals, so they travel east in a freighter with the animals in the cargo hold so that they can sell them to raise money for their new life.
During a storm, water crashes onto the deck, submerging half the boat. Just as the ship is sinking, Pi manages to get to the one life boat that gets free of the ship. Joining him in the boat are an injured zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. The hyena preys on the zebra, leading to a confrontation with the orangutan — with Pi all the while looking on but keeping his distance. As it looks like the hyena is about to turn on Pi, out from under the tarp covering half the life boat comes Robert Parker, a Bengal tiger. Soon, it’s just Pi and Robert Parker — with Pi setting up a satellite raft tethered to the small boat (though Robert Parker will swim, Pi hopes the slight remove will at least delay an attempt by Robert Parker to eat him).
The adventure of Pi at sea is book-ended by adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), now living in Canada and telling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall), who has been told by a longtime friend of Pi’s that his story will make him believe in God. As Pi floats across the ocean, he encounters all manner of wildlife, storms, beautiful skies and seas and a magical island of meerkats. It is, in the truest sense, a fantastic journey, one that takes everything from Pi and turns the teenager into a resourceful, self-reliant adult.
Life of Pi is beautiful — the crispness of a photograph, the saturated color of oil paints, the fluidity of watercolors. The tiger isn’t just orange — he’s an almost glowing, silky fiery orange. The sea changes colors — sometimes it is a rich, deep navy, sometimes it is a jewel colored aquamarine. In one scene, bioluminescent creatures float through the ocean like submerged stars. In another, the sky is so perfectly reflected in the water, the ship appears to float. Storms are explosive; the fish are iridescent. The lemur island is emerald, lush and sparkling. Though I’m not entirely certain it was needed, the 3D heightens the effect. This is a movie that you don’t so much watch as gaze at, wishing you could pause it and walk around to get a closer look at this or that extraordinary image.
And for the story, well, did I mentioned how beautiful the movie is? While it’s visuals enchant, Life of Pi’s is less rich and layered. This fairy tale feels magical but thin, without the emotional resonance you’d expect. With the central character alone with only an animal for most of the movie, one-sided monologues and adult Pi’s narration do most of the heavy lifting. All this talking undercuts whatever subtlety the visuals might have had. And then there’s the end, which, I think, is trying to say something about truth and faith but to me felt more like an undermining of the story we just sat through.
Are kids reading this book in school yet? It feels a little like the sort of story that lends itself to “what does this mean” and “explain how Pi’s journey relates to your life” type essays. While the story itself left me feeling a little more like I’d just sat through a homework assignment, not a cracking adventure, the look of the movie was itself a captivating experience. B-
Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. Directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by David Mangee from the novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi is two hours and seven minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.