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Life of Pi

Ang Lee explores another dimension in his latest

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Suraj Sharma, as Pi, with tiger

Life of Pi

Directed by Ang Lee

Opens Nov. 21

To say that Life of Pi is basically Cast Away in 3D—except Tom Hanks’ island shrinks down to a meager lifeboat and Wilson the volleyball transmogrifies into a Bengal tiger—would be an overreduction. The two movies do parallel each other in the time we spend waiting for the protagonists’ rescues and in their examinations of the relationship that forms between a human and a non-human during that period. But the titular character’s backstory in Life of Pi claims more dimension (figuratively) than a job at FedEx and a long-term girlfriend at home. And Pi, with all its three-dimensional extravagance, almost welcomes you aboard a pleasure cruise. It’s survivalism with a third of the grit.

Adapted from Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, Life of Pi is framed as a sort of autobiographical account of Pi Patel’s childhood up until his stranding at sea. An older Pi (Irrfan Khan), an Indian man living in French Canada, recounts his tale to a guest, a would-be novelist (Rafe Spall) in search of subject matter, to whom Pi’s story has been described as “a story that will make me believe in God.”

Through flashbacks, we tour Pi’s picturesque youth (the main Pi, after a couple iterations, is played by Suraj Sharma) in the French quarter of India, Pondicherry, the Asiatic equivalent to the Riviera. There, Pi’s mostly benevolent but occasionally stern father (Adil Hussain) decides to open a zoo. This element of the story lends itself quite handily to 3D technology, as evidenced in the luxurious opening credits, which loll along, cutting together eye-catching shots of giraffes, hippos, hummingbirds, and all manner of monkeys—replicating for at least four minutes what you might see at an Indian zoo if you weren’t confined by any bars.

As a child, an inquisitive Pi samples religions like other kids try out for sports. While his father, begrudging God for a boyhood bout of polio, warns Pi of becoming ensnared by the pomp that attends some Hindu traditions, Pi’s mother (Tabu) reads him bedtime stories about Krishna. Later, on a dare from his older brother, he enters a Catholic church, where he meets a priest who tells him Jesus makes God knowable, relatable through suffering. While Pi doesn’t understand that, he returns to the church over and over. He seeks out baptism. Next, we see young Pi in a turban, worshipping at a mosque. At the dinner table, he says three graces, and he is alone in his family in saying them. His laissez-faire parents respond with some mild skepticism and criticism (“You only need to convert to three more religions to spend your whole life on holiday” his father wryly remarks), but ultimately they tolerate it.

As you might guess, this is no Slumdog Millionaire. Pi’s youth unfolds not in bleak Mumbai, but in lush hillsides, a paradisiacal menagerie, and colorful, comfortable buildings. He leads a happy, if contemplative childhood. The greatest hurdle he surmounts (up until, you know, getting stranded on a lifeboat with a tiger) is that of his full name, Piscine, for which, of course, schoolchildren taunt him, as it sounds like “pissing.” The name derived from an Art Deco swimming pool in Paris that a friend of the Patels, Mamaji, once swam in. In the flashback to this event, we glimpse the second aspect of Life of Pi that dovetails so neatly with the 3D application: underwater scenes. The rays of light illuminating the water seem brighter; the other swimmers in the pool pop out, allowing us to navigate the water with Mamaji. The initial underwater and animal scenes act as amuse-bouches for the indulgent main course, which serves up an ark’s worth of animals underwater.

When Pi’s father decides to leave politically shaky India around the time Pi is getting into his teens, he uproots the family, selling the zoo animals to a facility in Canada and moving with them. Aboard a steamliner, animals caged and tranquilized, none of the Patels seem particularly thrilled to be headed to Canada. But the voyage nosedives when a massive storm pitches Pi into the Atlantic, along with all the animals. When the squall subsides, he finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.

Pi’s lengthy journey to salvation traverses more than a few astounding oceanic scenes: bioluminescent jellyfish, flying fish, leaping blue whales. Lee’s use of 3D effects isn’t as gimmicky as they come, but it does negate much of the desolation and boredom that one would inevitably feel in Pi’s situation—merely because the film transcends its own story line and becomes more of a spectacle. Which may be for the best, in the end, for while its story will not likely make you believe in God, Life of Pi’s visual splendor will make you believe in movies.

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