Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s new 3-D film from the same-titled 2001 best-selling novel, is a sort of mash-up of We Bought a Zoo, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Castaway. Life of Pi is an enchanting coming-of-age story.
There’s an Indian boy named Piscine Patel. His family owns a zoo. He’s named after a French swimming pool.
That name, however, causes him to be teased at school, so he changes it to Pi and memorizes that entire famous mathematical number to prove it. But the other kids refuse to let go of “Piscine.” It’s just too much fun to say, especially if you add a “g” on the end of it. Children are cruel.
Pi is a very earnest boy. A seeker. His father advises that he “start with science,” but he’s not having any of that. He experiments with Christianity; he prays to Mecca. His family members chuckle at his existential queries on an ongoing basis.
The family zoo has an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Richard Parker? Never mind. One day, Pi’s dad feeds Richard Parker a live goat in an attempt to wake up his young, idealistic, pacifist son to the fact that not everything is peace and love—and that a tiger such as Richard Parker is not a friend of humans. Nature is cruel.
Pi loves a pretty girl. The family decides to ship from India to Canada. Pi is brokenhearted.
Then, as if he didn’t have enough problems, the Japanese freighter with the family zoo on board capsizes in a storm. The only one surviving, in a lifeboat, is 16-year-old Pi, along with a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. And—oops, Richard Parker.
And here, on Pi’s Ark, as he calls it, is where the fun begins.
All of the above is quaint, cute, very whimsical, and a little bit magical. Let it be noted, however, that the whole opening credit montage, accompanied by shots of the family’s zoo animals, is unfortunately accompanied by such cloyingly cutesy music that it nearly sinks the whole movie in sentimental goo.
Goo notwithstanding, as stated above, the entire midsection of the movie is brilliant. It’s a survival story of a boy and a tiger on a lifeboat. But really, it’s an oceanic vision quest.
This is the “Castaway” section, wherein Pi tinkers with a survival manual. He jerry-rigs a second life raft out of lashed-together life jackets and spare oars so he can avoid Richard Parker. He rigs a sail and a sunhat. He learns to fish.
See, he’s got to feed Richard Parker. Tigers are powerful swimmers, and if Richard Parker gets hungry enough, Pi will be like that other famous oceanic vision-quester, Jonah, only he won’t be in the belly of a whale. The constant vigilance is a blessing in disguise. As Pi wryly notes, “Richard Parker keeps me alive.”
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Adil Hussain, Irrfan Kahn, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gérard Depardieu
Running Time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
The ocean set piece is breathtakingly beautiful. We see the moods of the ocean, from stormy ferocity to tranquil glassiness. We experience ocean magic as the camera (and topnotch CGI) dip beneath the surface and show the marine life beneath the boat and raft.
We experience flying fish, otherworldly phosphorescence, a lifeboat-dwarfing shark, and an unexpected, gargantuan, nighttime whale breaching. This is moviemaking at it’s best; we are transported.
One of the (very few) problems with this film is that it’s primarily a coming-of-age story. The overcoming of a life-threatening ordeal that enormous necessarily forges a powerful man. We needed to witness the transformation and to see the emerged man with a face set in stone, and all traces of boy vanished forever.
The sensitive boy remains, in the end. But he leaves us with a powerful message when he enlightens to the fact: “The act of life is about letting go.” When we can truly do that, God will save us from sharks and storms and tigers and a lack of potable water.
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