Life of Pi

© 2012 Ray Wong

Deemed to be an unfilmable book, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, to quote director Ang Lee, is a philosophical book about faith and storytelling. Even with the adventures in the middle, the story in fact lacks a true plot and relies mostly on two characters: a young man and a Bengal tiger.

While working on his next book in India, a young writer (Rafe Spall) receives a tip from an Indian man who insists that his nephew, Pi Patel, has a story that will make anyone believe in God. Intrigued, the writer travels back to Montreal to find Pi (Irrfan Khan), who proceeds to tell him his life story and the fateful events that forced him to question the existence of God.

Pi is an inquisitive boy while growing up in the French-Indian country where his family owns and operate a zoo. Even as a boy, Pi questions the truth about God, and he becomes a Hindu, Christian and Muslim at the same time, much to his father's chagrin. The changing political climate in India convinces Pi's father (Adil Hussain) to move the family to Canada. While crossing the Pacific on a Japanese freighter, a storm hits and sinks the boat, killing everyone onboard including Pi's family.

Out of sheer luck, Pi escapes in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Much to Pi's despair, the hyena kills the zebra and the orangutan before Richard Parker kills the hyena. Knowing the tiger will turn to him after it has devoured the other animals, Pi builds a raft and tries to avoid Richard Parker. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, and when food and water become scarce, Pi knows that he will need to share his resources with Richard Parker if he wants to survive, and the only way he can do that is to tame the tiger.

Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man) plays the older Pi. He doesn't have a lot of screen time, mostly serving as a reference character in a frame story. His quiet and thoughtful mannerism does convey a more mature and philosophical Pi. Rafe Spall (Prometheus) is less convincing as the writer. I find his performance and the role underdeveloped, almost as a plot device and not a real character.

Gérard Depardieu (Dumas) has a small role as a French cook, but he makes the best of it as a nasty brute. Indian actors Tabu and Adil Hussain are both good as Pi's mother and father respectively. But the star of the movie is newcomer Suraj Sharma. While not the best actor in the world, Sharma has a natural talent and charisma that make us care about his character, and he carries most of the movie admirably, with the help of only a CGI tiger most of the time. We can't tell that this is Sharma's very first acting job!

Well, I suppose the REAL star of the show is the CGI tiger. Recreated mostly with CGI  using four tigers as references, Richard Parker is a marvel of modern cinematic magic.

Writer David Magee (Finding Neverland) has the thankless job of attempting Yann Martel's famed but difficult and introspective novel. Magee has to streamline the novel to make it more cinematic while finding a structure that works for film. By and large he's succeeded, especially with the middle of the story when Pi tries to survive. I am not sure about the framing story though. I understand what he tries to accomplish, as it is as much a story about faith as it is about storytelling, but I find the frame lacking in urgency, relevance, and cinematic value. It also distances the audiences from the central narrative (which, in the book, is told in first person). The first-person narration helps, but emotionally it feels distant as the older Pi is too calm and collected, almost detached. Compared to the "meat" of the central story, the frame pales drastically.

I also find the dialogue somewhat on the nose and earnest. Yes, this is a story about faith, but does it need to be spelled out every chance we have?

It doesn't help that director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) breaks the adventures with the older Pi cutting in with his narration. That's distracting and an equivalent of an "author's intrusion." The ending also feels lukewarm as we try to process what we've seen and what the story really means. It lacks a significant payoff.

That said, technically the movie is spectacular. The cinematography is gorgeous from the scenes in India (with the exception of the scenes in Canada -- that looks like an afterthought) to the scenes in the Pacific. In addition to the Bengal tiger, the shipwreck, and the ferocious ocean, there are too many "wow" moments to mention. The movie is full of cinematic wonders that often juxtapose Pi's ordeal and struggles with a dreamlike quality of surrealism. In Lee's vision, the ocean is majestic and spectacular and frightening and lonesome and calming and inspirational all at once. I believe Life of Pi deserves an Oscar nomination, if not a win, just for Richard Parker himself, if not for the over all technical achievements.

So it's sad for me to say that Life of Pi turns out to be somewhat a disappointment. I wish Ang Lee and David Magee had dropped the framing device and plunged right in Pi's first-person narrative and engulfed us with Pi's adventures through and through. I also wish that they didn't overplay the spiritual aspect of the novel, which I found rather overbearing at times. Still, there is so much to like and marvel about this movie that I recommend that you go see it and come to your own conclusion.

Stars: Irrfan Khan, Suraj Sharma, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain
Director: Ang Lee
Writers: David Magee (based on novel by Yann Martel)
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating:  PG for emotional thematic content, some scary action sequences
Running Time: 127 minutes 


Script - 7
Performance - 7
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 9
Music/Sound - 8
Editing - 8
Production - 10

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 

No comments: