Review: Life of Pi


[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]

I haven’t read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Part of me wanted to shoot through the book prior to seeing Ang Lee’s film, but I’m glad I didn’t. I got to evaluate the movie on its own terms rather than thinking about the source material. Most film adaptations fall short of the book unless the book was mediocre to begin with, and Life of Pi, while a divisive literary bestseller, won the Booker Prize in 2002.

Lee said that the version of the film that opened this year’s New York Film Festival was still a work-in-progress. He’d be tweaking the movie for the next two weeks before delivering it to Fox, but it looked more or less done. In a sense, I got to watch an uncorrected proof of the film.

There are some high spiritual and theological stakes in Life of Pi. We’re told that the title character has a story so good that it will make you believe in God. My unshakable agnosticism remained unshaken, but that’s not a mark against the film. Life of Pi is quite beautiful and succeeds as a work of adventure and spectacle even though it doesn’t succeed as a work of conversion.

Life of Pi
Director: Ang Lee
Rating: PG
Release Date: November 21st, 2012

Pi Patel is a hungry soul. He’s portrayed by three different actors in the movie for different periods of his life. Irrfan Khan plays Pi the grown man, who appears in the film’s framing narrative. Pi speaks with a writer (Rafe Spall), who’s basically a stand-in for Yann Martel, and recounts his life spent looking for spiritual meaning. There’s Ayush Tandon as Pi the boy. His real name is Piscine, the French word for “pool,” but he shortens it to Pi in order to avoid teasing. Here we see him devouring world religions and trying to align them together. This young soul searching is thrown off following an incident at his family’s zoo. The moment reminded me of the philosophical question in William Blake’s “The Tyger”: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”

Pi the teenager is portrayed by newcomer Suraj Sharma. As a teen, Pi has an incredible adventure at sea. He’s stranded in a lifeboat after a major storm claims the ship he was on, all alone save for a few animals, most notably a tiger named Richard Parker. Somehow he must survive. Somehow he does. It’s kind of like a mash-up of the suffering in the Book of Job, the sense of being lost in Dante’s Inferno, and the yearning in The Odyssey. And by the end of this tale of survival, we’re supposed to believe in God.

Sharma does the film’s heavy lifting, and he’s quite a remarkable find as an actor. Lee puts him through the elements, and Sharma’s body transforms as the days at sea stretch into weeks and into months. We see his hair grow disheveled, his ribs angle out through his skin. Surprisingly he doesn’t grow any facial hair, hardly a wisp of it. Sharma conveys the desperation and sadness of someone not just lost at sea but unmoored from a sense of meaning in life. Usually this kind of existential soul searching doesn’t happen until early adulthood, but Pi is precocious, which might be thanks to Khan’s gravitas as the adult Pi and Tandon’s openness and curiosity as a young Pi.

By avoiding big stars or recognizable faces, Lee allows the story to unfold on its own terms without distraction. Tobey Maguire originally played the part of the writer, but Lee cut him from the movie and replaced him with Spall. The argument was that Maguire was too big a star for the role. And yet oddly Gerard Depardieu remains in the film. His role as the ship’s cook is much smaller than the writer in the framing narrative, but it’s still Gerard Depardieu.

What Life of Pi excels at is spectacle. There are some great set pieces in the movie during the adventure at sea. The storm that claims the ship is a magnificent chaos full of fire hose rain and a black churn of water. We see waves the size of mountains that come rolling, rising, and then crashing. Lee plays with the water and the sky as a reflection of Pi’s mental state, which helps keep the movie visually interesting. With most of it taking place in a lifeboat at sea without human interaction, it’s sort of necessary. The storms are an inner tumult, and the normal waves are a dangerous restlessness sometimes punctuated by a shark’s dorsal fin. Yet there are moments where the water is tranquil and pond-like, the skies so calm they’re straight out of a Thomas Kinkade painting (but in a good way). There’s life sloshing under the boat, which leads to a great play with bioluminescence and a stunning nod to the American book cover.

There’s genuine tension between Pi and Richard Parker even though the tiger is CG. It’s convincing CG, and most of the CG in the movie is solid, though your mileage may vary. Life of Pi is a fantasy story and a work of magical realism, so I might be more forgiving of certain shortcomings in verisimilitude, like the fake-looking elephant during the opening credits. That might be the thing about spectacle: if I’m hooked by a story of spectacle, I’m often willing to believe anything so long as it fits with the feel of the rest of the story. Lee’s use of 3D didn’t lend to the spectacle, however. There are the requisite “in your face” shots, and some nice use of depth of field, but nothing that wowed me. Then again, I don’t like 3D in general since it doesn’t immerse me in a film. It never wows me either. Involvement in a story is personal, intellectual, and/or emotional rather than technological or stereoscopic.

The spectacle and the religious aspect kept me hooked on Life of Pi on an intellectual level. Any story that claims it’ll make you believe in God interests me at least as a bit of provocation. The eventual conclusion that Pi comes to — the moment where we’re supposed to believe — is sort of like Pascal’s wager for aesthetes. There are a couple of logical problems with it that I don’t want to go into since it’d spoil the movie. Yet while this doesn’t make me believe in the possibility of God, it does confirm my own thoughts on the nature of belief. Thankfully this sort of spiritual conclusion isn’t as infuriating as Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, another one of those spiritual literary bestsellers. Lee’s movie and most likely Martel’s book are both better and more palatable than Coelho’s dreck.

I heard a few people sniffle during Life of Pi. They were obviously moved by the film, but I found myself admiring the movie instead of becoming personally invested in it. Part of that may have had to do with my intellectual interest in its claim about belief in God. If the spiritual message speaks to you, the story has a greater chance at moving you at the core. I was moved more by spectacle than spirituality, more by its imagination than its emotion. I wonder if there were any converts in the crowd that night; I also wonder how many runny noses belonged to the choir. It could be I prefer anarchic explorations of spirituality (e.g., Alejandro Jodorowsky) rather than refined ones (e.g., Daniel Quinn, Hermann Hesse). Something about anarchic spiritual journeys feel more primal than intellectual.

Some of the emotional distance is due to the script by David Magee, who also wrote the a-little-too-saccharine Finding Neverland. The framing narrative doesn’t necessarily undermine the lifeboat and tiger section, but it’s a device that may not have been best for this story. It’s a little clunky even though it gets around the problem of constant voice over narration. It gets especially clunky as the story of Pi winds down. The bits of Pi’s childhood have the feel of a Jeunet and Caro film, which is charming and fits with the feel of the adventure at sea. That could be it: the framing narrative is so mundane and sterile whereas the rest of the film burbles with fantasy.

Even though I wasn’t a believer in the end and even though I wasn’t moved like others were, Life of Pi is still a fine achievement for Lee, and my favorite movie he’s done since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’m curious to see it again some time down the road even if just to see what gets changed from this galley proof version of the film. I don’t expect to wind up a believer the second time through, and there’s no way I’ll burst into tears as a forsaken Pi looks to the heavens pleading to the clouds. I’ll go to be dazzled, and I’ll go to the book with the same sort of expectation. The book will probably seem that much better for it.

Alec Kubas-Meyer: Having read the book on which it was based, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation of offered me no surprises. I try not to let the source material infect my opinion of an adaptation, but in this case I really can’t help it. At least as I far as I can remember, what you see is almost exactly what you read. In fact, the only notable change from the text is the addition of four words which removes any of the thought that the original asked of the reader. Why is it a story that would “make you believe in God?” The book won’t tell you explicitly, but the movie will. It’s a small change, but after two hours of rarely-good-enough CGI (which is unlikely to get much better in the final two weeks of Lee’s tweaking) and too-distracting 3D, it makes a massive impact on the tone of the film. There are some really compelling moments sprinkled throughout Life of Pi, many of them based around the few times when the CG allows the film to become surreal rather than unreal, but they aren’t enough to save the whole from mere decency.  65 – Decent

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.