Director Ang Lee took the book that was considered to be unfilmable and turned it into a film. Most of Yann Martel’s popular novel Life of Pi is the story of a young man trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger after a storm has taken down the freighter on which he was traveling, along with his parents and most of the animals from their zoo. While in fiction this makes for natural conflict—human versus nature—in moviemaking it makes for a story without much dialog that takes place in a very confined space. Lee is successful, for the most part, in making that transition.
He accomplishes this by opening up the visual space of the story. Not only do we have a boy, a boat, and a beast, we also have the palette of the seas and the heavens. The visuals are gorgeous. By adding a sort of surreal quality to the beauty Pi witnesses, the film has a quality of magical realism that enhances the narrative.
One of the most impressive creations is the tiger. The mostly animated tiger looks as real as any I’ve ever seen. Lee presents us with a beautiful creature that is nothing less than a wild animal. The interactions of the zoo animals in the first half of the film make it clear that these animals are not pets. (Those scenes might be a little much for the animal-loving tween). The sea and the sky, also, are no less forgiving for their astonishing beauty. First-time actor Suraj Sharma is excellent as the teen left to fend for himself in this impossible situation.
For all the spectacle, there is still something missing. The movie goes on a little long, and I didn’t find myself responding to it emotionally in spite of my admiration for much of it.
Both the book and the movie seem to suggest that Pi’s story will make you believe in God. Pi’s childhood leads him to a theological gumbo of Islam, Hinduism, and Catholicism before he ever gets on the ill-fated ship. Pi is content to simmer in that soup, enjoying the comforts he takes from each one. Christians, of course, can’t help but wonder what God we are meant to believe in. The ending, of which I can say nothing without spoiling it for those unfamiliar with the story, leaves lots of room for interpretation. This makes the movie a good one for discussion.
So while it isn’t perfect, Life of Pi is worth experiencing. (Fox 2000)