In 2009, Fox 2000 Pictures announced that director Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) had signed on for the film adaptation of best-selling adventure-drama novel “Life of Pi,” written by Yann Martel. And while I wouldn’t say that it’s as much of a smashing success as its source material, “Life of Pi” is still a captivating spectacle.
The movie opens to a young writer (Rafe Spall) who is deep in conversation with Piscine Patel (Irrfan Khan), a middle-aged Indian man who, or so the writer has been told, has a story to tell that will “make him believe in God.” Patel goes on to narrate the events of his childhood and adolescence (during which he nicknamed himself “Pi”), including the circumstances of his education and practice of a number of different faiths, as well as his short-lived romances and his ongoing struggle to understand the animalistic nature of the residents in his father’s zoo.
However, the winds of change are out to alter the course of Pi’s future when his family decides to close down the zoo and sail to Canada in hopes of selling the animals and starting a new life. The movie picks up when a storm hits the ship on which 16-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma), his family and the animals are travelling, causing it to sink. His family nowhere to be seen, Pi reaches safety on a lifeboat but finds himself in the company of a handful of the animals that have also escaped the wreckage. One by one the animals succumb to hunger and hostility until Pi is left to share his refuge with Richard Parker, the zoo’s fully-grown Bengal tiger.
There are many scenes in the movie that depict such gorgeous shots of the sky and sea that it was difficult to distinguish where one ended and the other began; they evoked deep emotions as the audience witnessed Pi and Richard Parker sailing through a seemingly infinite cosmos. These scenes are juxtaposed with graver scenes of danger and suspense, as Pi adjusts to his new living environment and shipmate, as well as the scarcity of supplies. Surai Sharma’s debut performance was particularly impressive given his ability to portray such emotional range when he is, for the majority of the movie, the only human character onscreen. The combination of top-notch animation work and character development it took to create Richard Parker often made me forget that he isn’t real.
The final act of “Life of Pi” illustrates the title character’s return to the mainland, whereupon he is hospitalized and questioned by officials. The turn in plot that occurred after this point was like a slap across the face, and left me wondering what I should believe. The movie ends with the notion that the desire to believe in the beautiful story over the darker one is parallel to the choice of believing in God; by that point it made me resent the movie all the more.
However, there were times when I was on the edge of my seat, whether out of anticipation or anxiety, and the fact that 127 minutes of PG-rated material was able to accomplish that is nothing short of amazing. The high notes of “Life of Pi” are much higher than the low notes are low, and overall it proved to be an enjoyable experience.
Rating: 3.5 stars