Life of Pi (2012)

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I somehow feel ashamed of liking Life of Pi as much as I did. When people have asked me what it's about, I've realized that wasn't much of a concern for me. Religion maybe? Or something like that? For a film I enjoyed this much, what the underlying theme is seems to be of surprisingly little consequence. Early on, the movie makes the outrageous claim that the story about to be told will make the viewer believe in God. Ultimately, Life of Pi didn't teach me much about spirituality, but it did teach me to never befriend a hyenaÉbecause they're total dicks. A lesson I'd already learned from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a lesson one can never be reminded of too often.

It's an adventure story along the lines of Treasure Island; I know that much. There's a guy. And there's a tiger. And they're fighting over the same turf. There's a narrative framing device that feels a bit messy and a sort of reveal at the end that feels as oddly ineffective as that in Atonement. I rather wish we'd just been allowed to watch the story, instead of throwing in some uneven proselytizing. I guess it was a nice excuse to bring Irrfan Khan in, but other than that, it felt like an odd & frequently distracting choice. What makes this movie worth seeing is the seeing itself. Life of Pi looks stunning. I felt like I was watching a feature length Enya video. In the future, wasted college students will be syncing this up with the entirety of Shepherd Moons. It's going to be awesome.


Before I proceed, it seems relevant to know that I've read Life of Pi by Yann Martel on 3 separate occasions: once during a rainy weekend in Boston, once over the course of a summer when everything else I picked up to read was terrible, and once a few months before seeing the movie. It's a marvelous book that pretty much everyone's Mom has read because Oprah recommended it. Perhaps what brings me back to the book over and over again is how magical and mysterious and lush the story is. You'll find very little of those qualities in this film.

Life of Pi centers around Piscine Molitor "Pi" Patel, whose family owns a zoo. Pi's father makes the decision to move the family to Winnipeg, where he intends to sell the animals in the zoo and retire. However, while transporting his family and the animals via ship, the ship capsizes, leaving Pi, a tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra unlikely roommates on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean. Most of the story's action takes place here. The remainder of the story focuses primarily on the relationship between Pi and the tiger, who struggle to coexist on the lifeboat after the other passengers fail to survive. That's it.

What turns the simple tale into a full-fledged novel are both Pi's ruminations on spirituality as well as the daily operations of the two surviving crew members. The power of the reader's imagination fills in the blanks, as the book provides poetic descriptions of the world that surrounds both Pi and the tiger, and provides insight into the mind of Pi, full of ideas about the nature of God and survival.

Cue turning the novel into a movie. Life of Pi, in the hands of Ang Lee, becomes a CGI-fest, not only in its depiction of what a massive tiger would behave like on a tiny life boat, but also in its depiction of the ocean around said tiny life boat. By limiting the imagination of the viewer by spelling it all out for us, the story of tiny Pi, the reckless tiger, and the limitless ocean becomes finite and quickly falls flat. Sold on the beauty of its 3D depiction of the infinitely beautiful world around our travellers, as well as the realistic look of the CGI-created tiger, I longed for the power of my imagination to fall short of the spectacle I was taking in. This was not to be the case. Instead, I spent most of the film putting my 3D glasses on top of my forehead, wondering what the point was of creating a 3D world that only subtly took advantage of new advancements in technology.

Altogether, Life of Pi is little more than pretty, and fails to even begin to tackle the philosophical questions presented in its source material. Although one can argue that the film should be judged on its own merits as a separate entity from the book, in this case, I just couldn't move past it. Instead of contemplating the existence of God and love and family and the connections between all three, I could only contemplate how much longer I would have to wait before I could hop out and grab some sushi.


Life of Pi is the spiritual journey of a boy who gets stuck on a life boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a tiger named Richard Parker. This feature length parable is powerful in its message, but often feels weak in its approach, as it is clean, glossy, and overworked. Though the meat of the film is strange and fascinating, the beginning and ending feel preachy and over-explanatory. On the other hand, this movie is GORGEOUS. Extraordinary heightened color adds to the dreamlike quality of this magical tale. The visual effects are truly incredible. It is amazing that we can nowadays produce such a beautiful and realistic cast of animals with such expression, particularly in such a dynamic tiger as Richard Parker. The score mixes meditative Indian music (emphasizing the spiritual themes of the story) with French accordion music (emphasizing the more playful and whimsical notes of the story) and traditional epic tones in order to create a greatly diverse yet balanced ambience.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma is slightly irritating and not always convincing as the titular character (which is unfortunate as we are stuck in a boat with him for the majority of the film). Fortunately, there is much spectacle to distract us.