Being stranded in the middle of an unforgiving ocean is a theme that’s been explored in films as diverse as Swiss Family Robinson and Hitchcock’s surprisingly tense Lifeboat. But being cast adrift for over 200 days in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal Tiger? It makes an empty lifeboat seem like a positive luxury, but that’s the journey that young Piscine Militor Patel — “Pi” for short — embarks on after the freighter his family’s on sinks in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Based on the provocative and imaginative best-selling book by Yann Martel, the fanciful tale comes to the screen beautifully, thanks to the vision of director Ang Lee and his production team. Whether it’s a floating mangrove island overrun with meerkats, a magical sea of bio-luminescent jellyfish, or just the frightening snarl of Richard Parker, the tiger in Life of Pi, everything works remarkably well. The performances of the actors, and particularly of Suraj Sharma, who plays the stranded Pi, are superb. Indeed, his performance is definitely Oscar-worthy.
There is a niggling problem with the film, one that is an all-too-common complaint with big budget cinema in the last decade: 3D. Lee was passionate about using the 3D process and cites groundbreaking cinema like Avatar 3D as an inspiration. But there are too many cheap 3D effects in Life of Pi. Sticks that wave at the camera, the tiger leaping at the viewer, not just trite clichés that beg the viewer to admire the effect but effects that also break the narrative spell, bringing viewers out of the story and back to the technical mastery of the filmmakers. What’s worse is that none of them are critical to the narrative, they’re just a distraction.
The narrative structure of Life of Pi is complicated, a tale of his life as told by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a spiritually adrift writer (Rafe Spall) who has been told that Pi’s story “will make you believe in God”. We then meet Pi as a young child (played by Ayush Tandon) experiencing difficulties in school due to his curious name: “Pissy”, as the other children tease. He renames himself Pi, the irrational number 3.1415, and becomes a local hero. His childhood is more characterized by his search for God, simultaneously encompassing Hindu, Christian and Muslim beliefs. His family owns a zoo and when, years later, they fall on hard times as India goes through major political upheaval, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) decides the best path is for them to emigrate to Canada, along with all their animals.
The last chapter of the book took “Life of Pi” from
an interesting read to a profound exploration of the nature of reality, a provocative recast of the entire narrative, and this sense of wonder is retained in
the cinematic retelling. It explores
how we are destined to retell the story of our life in a manner
that makes us a heroic figure rather than just a figure upon the stage
It also asks what is the nature of God? How can a merciful or loving God — or Gods, in the case of Hinduism — leave Pi adrift in the Pacific with Richard Parker, a ferocious tiger, and nothing other than his wits to keep him alive? It’s the metaphysical experience that transforms Life of Pi from a visual delight into a deep, profound film.
Life of Pi is a wonder to behold, a reminder of the power of cinema, of the wondrous journeys that a superb filmmaker, cast and production crew can take us on as we sit in a dark theater, seeking escape. It’s a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination for the Academy Awards and it’s well worth seeing, even with the occasionally overwrought 3D. I’m eager to watch it again.