The Life of Pi is one of my favorite books. It pretty much has it all—adventure; struggle; reflection on the relationship between man and nature, man and God, and man and himself. Plus, a tiger on a lifeboat. For years people said it was unfilmable, so you can’t imagine my excitement when I heard director Ang Lee was making an adaptation. Though the book is better, the film adaptation delivers on the entrancing experience of the story.
In the film, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, and Gautam Belur) is an inquisitive Indian boy raised by zookeeping intellectuals. Despite his brother’s teasing and his father’s urgings toward rationalism, as he grows, Pi becomes a practicing Hindu, Catholic, and Muslim. This deep faith and open-minded spirituality is put to the test when the family decides to close down their zoo and move to Canada. They set sail with their animals, who have been sold to various zoos in North America. Not long into their journey, the ship sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan named Orange Juice, and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Against all odds, Pi must use his knowledge from the zoo, ingenuity, and determination to keep himself alive along side the tiger.
One of my favorite parts about the novel and the film is the way that we are encouraged to think about the experience from the animals’ perspective. Pi understands that he is shipwrecked. Most likely he has read tales of adventure on the high seas. He has access to the survival guide he finds in the lifeboat. But Richard Parker, the zebra, Orange Juice, and the hyena have no knowledge but through experience and instinct. To them, being at sea is totally foreign and totally overwhelming. It is a testament to Pi’s character and intelligence that he understands this and both uses the knowledge to stabilize his relationship with Richard Parker and is compassionate enough to care for the animals. In this way, the audience is encouraged to attach to both Pi and Richard Parker, rooting on their unlikely symbiosis.
As teenage Pi, Suraj Sharma does a wonderful job bringing the relationship to life. He portrays Pi’s natural curiosity mixed along with the trials of the shipwreck and the evolving connection he shares with Richard Parker. His performance is at its best when Pi is faced with dilemmas that put his religious ideals at odds with his survival. For example, as a vegetarian, Pi fishes in order to feed Richard Parker, keeping the tiger satisfied to ensure he doesn’t become prey himself. Eventually, however, Pi breaks down and must eat the fish to keep from starving. Sharma brings depth to this tipping point and many others. Much of the film rests on his performance opposite a CGI tiger, as Irrfan Khan, adult Pi, narrates the frame of the story but appears only at the periphery.
Visually, The Life of Pi is stunning. Though it’s hard to lose sight of the widespread use of CGI, the most beautiful part of director Ang Lee’s adaptation is the way he blends sea and sky so that the vastness of the sea is captured by the reflection of the sky. Further, the creation of various sea-life as a backdrop, though sometimes a bit much, adds texture to what otherwise could have been a monotonous location after a while.
Though the film is well made, I wonder how much of my enjoyment was produced by knowing the novel before the movie. As usual, the book is better than the movie and I do highly recommend reading it, as it provides a richer background of the story and includes nuances and details that were cut for time. Because of the way the novel was simplified for the adaptation, it occasionally comes across slightly heavy-handed or sappy. The film loses some of the character development and reflectiveness that makes the big moments of the plot resonate, but in the end it is one of the strongest adaptations I have seen in a long time. 4.5/5 stars
The Life of Pi was written by David Magee based upon the novel by Yann Martel and directed by Ang Lee. It runs 127 minutes and is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.
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