Animal Magnetism

film piBoy and tiger share fantastic voyage in gorgeous ‘Life of Pi’ 

It’s a story too incredible to believe. But choosing what to believe—along with the sheer power of storytelling—is exactly the point of Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s best-selling novel of faith, destiny, courage and survival, now made into a magnificent-looking film by director Ang Lee.

Martel’s 2002 novel of a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger, shipwrecked together in a small lifeboat in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, was long considered unfilmable (at least, as a live-action movie)—until Lee came on board.

A craftsman who never makes the same film twice, Lee is renowned for his sensitive handling of diverse, often daunting material, from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Brokeback Mountain. With careful attention to Martel’s core theme—the search for God (in whatever guise) through astounding adversity—Lee turns the material into a visually rapturous and ecstatic spiritual journey that’s also a breathtaking adventure saga. Kudos to cinematographer Claudio Miranda (TRON: Legacy; The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) for providing such stunning visuals to go with Lee’s delicate narrative of loss and redemption.

Scripted by David Magee, Life of Pi is a tale-within-a-tale. A blocked Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) has just returned from India with instructions to look up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), an Indian-born university lecturer in Montreal with a story to tell. After a lengthy and convoluted explanation of how he came up with the nickname, “Pi,” (and “irrational” number, in mathematics), Patel describes his childhood in Ponticherry, India. The son of a rationalist zookeeper, and a religious mother, little Pi discovers and embraces the Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths, all three of which he practices with happy abandon. (Calling himself a “Catholic Hindu,” Patel jokes, “We get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods.”)

When his father decides to uproot the family, and their animals, and sail for a new life in Canada, 16-year-old Pi (now played by the wonderful newcomer Suraj Sharma) is heartbroken. But a ferocious storm at sea scuttles the freighter they’re sailing on, and young Pi is stranded in a small lifeboat with an injured zebra, a female orangutan, a vicious hyena—and a 450-pound Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.

As the numberless days wear on, Pi battles to survive, feeding himself on the boat’s supply of biscuits and canned water, and keeping himself at a safe distance from the hungry tiger. (He builds himself a raft out of oars and flotation devices attached to the boat by a rope.) He’s soon reduced to catching and eating raw fish and collecting rainwater, which he shares with Richard Parker. Unable to tame the giant cat, Pi manages to train him to the point that they can share opposite ends of the boat. But when more storms wrack the seas, Pi gives himself up to God and fate, come what may.

Martel’s book generated plenty of chatroom debate about its symbolism, whether the “animal story” is merely an allegory for a more horrific, yet mundane human story of survival that the older Patel also tells. Lee includes mention of the alternate story, but almost as a footnote toward the end of the film. As in the book, Lee invites the viewer to choose between the exalted spiritual quest story and the sad, sordid alternative, but the sheer gorgeousness of the images argues for the former—clouds, stars and sunsets reflected in crystal clear water give the sense of bodies floating in the sky; night scenes of hundreds of phosphorescent jellies pulsing under the surface of the black water, or a huge, glowing whale arcing out into the air let viewers in on the hallucinations of an ecstatic visionary.

film lifeofLife of Pi is rated PG, which basically means no sex or naughty words, but that doesn’t mean it’s a kids’ movie. Besides brief scenes of animals attacking and/or eating other animals, a bigger problem for very young children is all the talking, which will bore them silly. The verbosity of the bracketing story gets a bit wearisome for adults, too. Pondering the quest for (or death of) spirituality may have resonated more on the printed page, but onscreen, all we care about is getting back out on the water and the delirious fever dream at the heart of Lee’s hypnotic film.


***1/2 (out of four)

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With Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan. Written by David Magee.
From the novel by Yann Martel. Directed by Ang Lee.
A 20th Century-Fox release. Rated PG. 127 minutes.

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