DIRECTED BY: Ang Lee
WRITTEN BY: David Magee
STARRING: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu.
I wish I saw Life of Pi in theaters. I mean I really really wish I saw this in theaters. I’m watching this and thinking to myself “I’m missing out on so much by relegating this to a 50-something inch TV screen in my living room. Every frame of this movie is just so saturated with beautiful, vibrant colors that (literally) were meant to pop out of the screen. There are very few movies that can make me say this…but I regret not being able to see this in 3D. There! I said it! Call me a hypocrite if you want, but it’s obvious that this is a movie crafted from the ground up to be projected and watch in 3D, no post-conversion stuff here.
Life of Pi is based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel. The vast majority of the narrative centers on the titular Piscine Patel, PI for short. His parents own a zoo in Pondicherry, India. After real estate issues force his family to shut down the zoo, the family is forced to pick up and move to Canada with their animals. After a shipwreck kills most of the passengers, Pi is stranded on a lifeboat and forced to survive while living with the surviving animals that share the boat with him. Just one problem, one of those animals happens to be a live Bengal tiger! Not only does Pi have to keep himself from starving, he has to do so without being mauled to death by a massive 400 pound carnivore!
I have read the novel, though it’s been some years since I’ve done so. I remember really liking it, and I appreciated the story's metaphorical elements, and its ambiguous ending. Both the book and the film are framed within the context of a writer looking for material for a novel. His search for inspiration eventually leads him to a now older Pi living in Canada. This works well in writing form, but in film form…not so much. It’s not so much that it couldn’t work, it just doesn’t in the way it’s done here…at all. The actual story, as told by the film, is engaging and powerful. The narration and framing device only seems to serves as a method of hammering you over the head with ham-fisted, stacked deck philosophizing and religious metaphors. It interrupts the sense of narrative flow and intrudes on the story it’s trying to tell. The book occasionally has this problem, but I rarely felt it was actually “taking sides”. It also doesn’t help that the actor playing the writer is just terrible!
On the inverse of that, though, Suraj Sharma’s performance as Pi is actually pretty incredible, and that’s not just based on his acting. The fact that he was able to give such a raw, heartfelt performance almost entirely against green screen alone is a pretty strong testament to his talent. It’s also very telling of the skill evident in Ang Lee’s direction. I envy a director who is able to so effortlessly move between wildly different genres whilst maintaining such a steady degree of quality, as well as the confidence in ones vision to adapt a book that many considered to be un-filmable. 2012 really was the year of the “un-filmable”, with seemingly impossible movies like Cloud Atlas and The Avengers making relatively successful transitions to the big screen (at least in my opinion).
With that said, though, it’s not exactly what I would consider a seamless transition. A lot of the darker, richer themes are disposed in favor of hackneyed messages and visual wonderment. I get that some things simply don’t translate well into a visual medium, which is fine as long as it doesn’t directly infringe on the core themes of the source material. In the books, the scenes on the boat with the tiger were “fantastic” in the sense that they straddled the line between believability and un-believability without really ever crossing it. The film, on the other hand, goes all out fantasy from the outset, and that makes the twist at the end hard to swallow.
If you don’t want spoilers, don’t read the next paragraph.
After Pi has been rescued after washing up onto Mexican shores, representatives of the Japanese fishing company (who owned the ship that sank) ask Pi what exactly happened so that they might learn why the ship sank. After Pi tells them the story we just heard and they don’t believe him, he tells a different one: there was no tiger or animals, they were just people. They were the ones that killed each other in an attempt to survive, and Pi was Richard Parker. The thematic crux of the book and the film centers on the characters and readers deciding which story was the one you wanted to believe, the fantastic one you just heard, or the “realer” one. The book doesn’t outright lean one way or the other (leaning towards the tiger story), instead just raising the question and letting the reader interpret it in their own way. The movie doesn’t afford that, and pretty much outright says the tiger story is the “correct” story. I also feel it kind of loses the point a bit making the tiger story a CGI visual wonderland full of pretty colors, as that skews the desirability of that story in its favor. I felt that it wasn’t necessarily the wonderment that made the story appealing, it was that there was that it was a “story”, with meaning and a sense of purpose. In that sense, it’s not just an argument for believing in god, but also a commentary on our preference for stories and narrative in our lives. It’s probably not as big of an issue as I’m making it out to be, but the book already walks a fine line, and I feel the movie stacks the deck too much in one side’s favor.
Ultimately, the film ends up devolving into a session of shallow sermonizing, which is a shame because the book leaves it far more up to the reader as to how the ending should be interpreted. I still enjoyed Life of Pi, and to be honest it’s probably the best version of the story we could have hoped to get on film. I might have even rated it higher if I’d seen it as it should have been seen, but I can’t really judge it based on what “might have been”. I don’t know if I would recommend you read the book or see the movie first, as both have benefits to not having read or seen one or the other. I’d probably suggest the book because of its darker, richer story, and stronger allegorical elements.
RATING: * * * (out of four)