Life of Pi

PhotobucketLife of Pi is a thoughtful parable that will enchant the entire family. Its imaginative qualities suggest both the adventure of Robinson Crusoe and the stylistic elegance of The Black Stallion. But while Pi favorably recalls those stories, there’s a philosophical bent entirely its own that infuses the storyline.  Life of Pi is a stunning drama that blends photography, magical realism and religion into a unique chronicle about perseverance.

Our protagonist is the son of a zookeeper from Pondicherry, India. In the first part, Pi Patel reminisces on his childhood. He is named Piscine Molitor after a swimming pool in France where the water was “so clear, you could make your coffee there.”  However he soon shortens it to the mathematical symbol π when his classmates purposefully mispronounce the moniker as “pissing” in jest. No ordinary boy, Pi is naturally curious and intelligent. Having been raised as a Hindu, he is also equally drawn to the monotheistic religions of Christianity and Islam. His worldview is a seemingly incompatible mixture of all three. Concerned with worsening economic conditions and the fate of his zoo, Pi’s father decides to sell off the zoo animals and move his family to Canada. While traveling on a Japanese ship transporting a few of the creatures, their vessel capsizes in a storm.

Our saga is a contemplation on death and survival. Much of the action concerns Pi’s time marooned aboard a small lifeboat drifting aimlessly on the Pacific Ocean with a spotted hyena, an injured zebra and an orangutan. Breathtaking visuals heighten the images offered in both 2D and 3D prints. The cinematography is vivid and lush. CGI is used inconspicuously to allow the animal characters to act in a way that is credible. You’d think that placing most of the action within such a restrictive setting would severely limit interest, but this is where the real story begins. Another stowaway makes his presence known later, The relationship between Pi and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger, form the vast majority of the plot. Their antagonistic interaction constitutes a very integral component. Will they be able to co-exist while still respecting the other’s space? Their relationship and Pi’s fight to stay alive becomes a deep reflection on perseverance.

On the surface, Life of Pi is a tale of survival involving a teenager from India set adrift on a boat with a tiger. Not having read the source novel, I can only asses what is presented here. If indeed, Yann Martel’s book is as unfilmable as everyone says, I can only applaud director Ang Lee. His adaptation is an unqualified success. Lee’s capacity to simplify Martel’s novel into a cinematic work that is easily accessible for all ages, is masterful. There is an artistry in the middle section of the movie that finds a quiet beauty in simply existing. Its themes of spirituality and romanticism are explored with a maturity and depth that will entertain adults, but still delight children. The narrative explores faith as an existential meditation that transports the viewer to a story far beyond a mere shipwreck. There are lingering questions as to what we’ve just witnessed. However, I wasn’t too preoccupied with such matters. I was absolutely enthralled with this spectacle detailing a gorgeous voyage of personal discovery.


33 Responses to “Life of Pi”

  1. This one has been getting way too much hype. When I went to see Prometheus in June, there were six/seven trailers and then a ten-minute ad for Life of Pi. All it was, was a guy throwing fish to his tiger or something. Then I was listening to NPR last week; an interview with Irrfan Khan from Slumdog Millionaire (one of my very favorites ever), who plays the older Pi Patel in Life of Pi. And it’s JUST come out. Glad it’s getting praised.

    I haven’t read Life of Pi, but I’m sure it’ll be a requirement at some point during my high school career. From what I’ve heard, it’s a gem, but it’s also a whale. Surprised any director could fit that into less than three hours, let alone Ang Lee. I must find time to see this one, though. It’s just too difficult for me to resist. Great review.


    • Life of Pi an expensive adaptation of a children’s book like Hugo and it’s not led by a big name star. The producers had an uphill battle trying to convince audiences to go see this. Despite Hugo’s critical acclaim it was a financial disappointment and they did want to suffer the same fate. The marketing campaign has been refreshingly ambiguous. Labeling it as “the next Avatar” was misguided however. Aside from the film’s 3D and computer-generated imagery, the two have nothing in common. Life of Pi is multi-layered in its storytelling where Avatar is much more direct and simple.

      Ang Lee makes adapting the novel seem easy. It was so enthralling, I didn’t want it to end.


  2. I’ve heard great things about this one and I’m excited to see this. I like much of Lee’s work, so I can’t wait. Nice review.


    • I love that Ang Lee cannot be categorized. Each of his last 4 films: Taking Woodstock, Lust, Caution, Brokeback Mountain, Hulk couldn’t be more different from the next. His latest Life of Pi is unlike anything he has ever done, yet he is perfectly suited to the task.


  3. Saw this the other night and enjoyed it, did you see it in 3D Mark? I thought the 3D was surprisingly well done and I’m usually not a fan of it.


  4. Great review, Mark. I’m glad to see you enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s hard not to admire its grand achievement, and enjoy thoroughly at the same time.


  5. Good review Mark. Sometimes Lee works for me, and other times, he doesn’t, but here is where he worked for me with his beautiful style and look, only to have it wasted on a story that seems to reach out a bit too far for it’s own grasp. It’s a good one, just not a great one like I thought I was to expect.


    • I checked out your review. I loved the whole story, including young Pi’s childhood. It laid the groundwork as to why we should care about his character. He’s an intelligent boy with a questioning mind. The ending introduces some questions, but those really didn’t change the way I felt about what I had just witnessed. I enjoyed his complete odyssey and was very emotionally involved all the way through.


  6. Definitely one of my favorite movies of the year. Beautiful story with great visual scenes. Very emotional too. 4 1/2 stars.


  7. Great review and impressive rating. I’m really psyched for this one. I read the book many years ago and don’t remember it all that well, just that it was a bit boring. But reading all the praise and seeing sneak peeks of the marvelous visuals really have me excited.


  8. Sounds like Lee deftly handles this adaptation. Looking forward to seeing it soon.


  9. Looking forward to seeing this…if not on the big screen, then certainly on Blu-ray.


  10. Saw this the other night at the NYFF. Wow. It’s an incredible film, a true cinematic achievement, possibly a classic and maybe will be the first 3D movie to break through and win the Best Picture Oscar. Some of the images were so beautiful that the audience gasped at many of them. I felt transported and like I was seeing a movie for the very first time. I haven’t felt that sort of magic in a movie theater in a long, long time.

    I read the book and liked it and the film may even improve upon it which is kind of a miracle considering it’s kids, animals and water just about all the time. The spiritual themes are simple and deep and raise more questions about faith and belief than answer anything. No preaching going on here and there could be. Without giving anything away, it’s a wonderful story about storytelling and how telling our stories can get us through the most horrible life experiences and to help deal with the aftermath of them.


    • I really enjoyed your experience at the New York Film festival watching this. It truly captures why I still enjoy seeing movies in a theater on a big screen.

      Avatar and Hugo couldn’t do it. Could Life of Pi be the first 3D Best Picture winner? It has to be nominated first of course, but it’s certainly deserving of the prize. It’s going to have some stiff competition however.

      Thanks for your insight. Some nice observations there.


  11. martin250 Says:

    Nice review Mark. this has been a great year for the movies, don’t you think? you’re best of the year list might be difficult to arrange.


    • Yeah so many of them have come from the last couple months. Overall I am really pleased with the way 2012 turned out. Still have Zero Dark Thirty, The Hobbit and Les Misérables to see. What a year!


  12. Great review, it’s not out here until the 20th of December but i was lucky enough to see. Preview last week and just got my review up yesterday (, i think it should definately get some nods come oscar time, at the very least for the actor playing the teen Pi, he sells you on his character entirely throughout the movie and on lesser actor’s shoulders the movie would have crumbled. I even admit that i found myself welling up near the movie’s end, a fantastic movie.


    • I agree with you about Suraj Sharma who played Pi at 16 through most of the film. He could easily be nominated for Best Actor. Funnily enough his name doesn’t seem to come up much during Oscar talk. That’s a shame because he’s incredible, especially for a first time actor.


  13. Really glad you liked this. Life of Pi is easily my favourite film of this year. It’s visually breathtaking.


  14. I also very much enjoyed LIfe of Pi and am glad to see the report you give here. The tale of Pi is amazing. I loved it. Great review here.


  15. Having enjoyed the story as much as you did and for the same reasons, I had a similar reaction to an “alternate version” of what had happened being introduced just 15 minutes from the end of the film. It seemed to undermine what I’d been caught up in watching for two hours and took something away from my enjoyment of it. On the other hand it did add an interesting philosophical twist, offer a plausible explanation for some of the more unbelievable events, illuminate Pi’s relationship to the tiger, and serve as the payoff (although an unsatisfactory one, I thought) to the promise made to the interviewing writer, that Pi’s story would “prove” God.

    The matter intrigued me enough to get me to read the book to find out what the author had intended. Most of the time the screenplay followed the novel closely; in fact a lot of the script came directly out of the book. To the extent that the two differed, I thought the screenplay was always better. It eliminated a lot of stuff extraneous to the story, some of which was annoyingly pedantic or preachy, and it did away with a confusing scene near the end of Pi’s sojourn. The screenwriters also profitably added some scenes and modified others, most of which, I noticed, reinforced the plausibility of the alternate version. In fact the screenplay handled the whole what-is-truth? matter better than the book did. It got the point across more concisely and burdened the audience with less gruesome detail. The book’s longer account DID convince me that the author thought that inclusion of the alternate version was important to the point he was trying to make though. It let him comment on a theme he’d raised earlier in the story of the contrast between scientific accuracy and the deeper kind of reality God embodies, suggesting at the end that God somehow allows you to transform reality by mythologizing it, although “And so it goes with God,” was all that Pi actually said on the matter.

    Whether or not you find wisdom in that sort of thinking determines, I suppose, whether you think that inclusion of the alternate version was intriguing or annoying. But whatever your reaction might be, I think you’d find it interesting to re-watch the film after seeing it through once, and noticing the relevance of some things that hadn’t been evident the first time around, especially in Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker. Beyond that I’d speculate that maybe the main reason the author decided to include the episode of the carnivorous island was to make it clear that there were still mysterious occurrences of a sort that the seemingly-more-factual alternate version couldn’t handle.


    • Thank you for offering your insights having read the book. You make some fascinating points and I’m now inspired to re-watch the film again.

      Incidentally, this might be a bit off subject, but since you did read Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, I’ll mention that there’s another book called Max and the Cats which is a 1981 novella by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. It received some attention in 2002 since Martel’s book appears to borrow elements from Scliar’s text.


      • I took your suggestion and read “Max and the Cats”. As you know, it was written in 1981, long before “Life of Pi”, and it DOES have a couple of striking similarities; but I don’t think it adds anything of interest to the book or the movie.

        Max is the protagonist of the short (115 page) novel. He sails from Germany (cf. India) seeking a new life in Brazil (cf. Canada). The cargo of the freighter he’s on includes a group of zoo animals. When the ship sinks, Max scrambles onto a dingy and hauls in a box that drifts by, only to have a jaguar leap out of the box into the boat with him. He manages to maintain an uneasy truce with the cat by providing it with food, until, after a brief time, he finds himself rescued and the jaguar no longer in evidence. There’s a later suggestion that the jaguar MAY have only been the product of his mind. Along with some other cats that figure in the story, it seems to be symbolic of something – I’m not sure what: maybe irrational fears Max is struggling to overcome and which he ultimately succeeds in doing.

        In most respects the stories are quite different. “Max” has none of the qualities that made “Pi” as interesting as it was — in spite of some of the latter’s unnecessary digressions. “Max” is episodic, jumbled and uninvolving. The main character is unlikeable, his chief distinction being an obsession with Nazis, which he manages to overcome only by inducing the death of somebody who’s been accused of being one! Beyond that, the book has none of the philosophical curiosity of “Pi”; and rather than inviting consideration of God, if anything, the author seems dismissive of religious belief. Plus which the ending is sufficiently dopey that you wind up asking yourself, “what did I read this thing through for?”

        Anyway the coincidences are sharp enough that you’re tempted to think Martell read “Max” before he wrote “Pi”, but (thank heaven!) he didn’t rely on it for more than a couple of plot triggers. Interestingly enough, Martell is quoted on the back of the book (a 10th printing of “Max” from 2003) as saying: “I am indebted to Mr. Moacyr Scliar for the spark of life,” – whatever THAT may mean.


      • Martel has offered that his book’s premise came in part from reading a book review of Moacyr Scliar’s 1981 novella Max and the Cats. Most people have come to same conclusion as you. Although there are some striking similarities, the overall gist of each book is quite different.

        Thanks for your insight!


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