Based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi is the tale of an impossible adventure of a young man named after a swimming pool who rebrands himself on the mathematical constant Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his journey of survival after a shipwreck and 227 days alone on a life boat with a Bengal tiger as his only companion.
Much like the book, the movie hinges on the audience being able to accept the tale of the unreliable narrator, an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounting his adventure years later, despite all logic that tells us the young man’s journey would be impossible.
The film is beautiful to behold, and with only a few exceptions (most notably the odd depiction of Pi’s uncle) the CGI elegantly renders the animals and stark environment the young zoo keeper’s son finds himself. After a brief introduction, and discounting the later events of the older Pi sharing his story to a struggling writer (Rafe Spall), nearly the entire movie takes place on the small lifeboat in the middle of an empty ocean.
Don’t be fooled by the premise of a young man alone in the ocean with a tiger. This certainly is not a wacky live-action Disney film. Here a teenager, unable and unwilling to try and kill the fearsome beast, is forced to build himself a makeshift raft and float along the side of a lifeboat which carries a starving orange and black killing machine that would gladly rip him to pieces given half a chance. Although far less gruesome that its source material, there’s plenty here that would frighten younger viewers.
The movie follows a basic linear structure, but Life of Pi isn’t really centered around a plot as much as a metaphorical spiritual journey that changes the young man’s view of the world forever. The child who was accepting off all religion (much to the consternation of his father and brother) comes to his own understanding of God and religion alone on the seas with scant supplies and a hungry tiger to feed.
Much of the movie is Pi simply struggling to survive and learning to cope with the remarkable circumstances in which he finds himself. And yet, the film never gets boring. Thanks to beautiful cinematography mixed with fully realized CGI environments, the audience is thrown into a harsh but magical world, shown through the eyes of a naive (and slowly starving) teenager. The look of the film is worth the price of admission alone.
Aside from the special effects, the most impressive being the Bengal tiger Richard Parker, the film’s success falls squarely on the shoulders of 17 year-old first-time actor Suraj Sharma. And he, like the movie itself, is a wonder to behold. Young actors are unlikely to win Academy Awards for starring roles, even one as terrific as this, but Sharma’s performance should solidify him at least a nomination.
Other than a few minor quibbles, my largest complaint with the film is an alternative explanation the Life of Pi offers near the end of the movie when it puts aside the child’s miraculous story and offers a far more brutally realistic version of events. After spending two-hours getting audiences to accept the bizarre and wondrous series of events the script’s gruesome alternative seems out of place, and unwarranted. How this second story is presented, and accepted by the on-screen audience, certainly implies it is the true version of events which, sadly, takes some of the luster off the far more remarkable and enthralling journey already told.
Director Ang Lee has made a career out of choosing a wide range of subjects that all put character first and foremost, and Life of Pi is no exception. Despite its troubling coda and narrative structure, both of which interrupt the magical storytelling and impossible journey we want to see continue, the film is all enveloping and impossible to dismiss. It may not be the best film you see this year but it will definitely be one of the most memorable.