The wonderful Irrfan Khan, as the older Pi, prefaces the story he will tell by saying it will make the listener believe in God. Well, I still don’t believe in God. Maybe Darwin, but certainly those who are responsible for CGI.
Life of Pi is a beautiful film. It’s like a nature documentary, even if the animals are just a combination of pixels. I liked the film for that reason, even if the film isn’t as profound or moving as it thinks it is.
The opening credit scene is charming, as it depicts the animals in a zoo (these are all real animals). Piscitine Molitor Patel, named after a Parisian swimming pool, is born and raised on a zoo in French India. Since his name also sounds like the act of urinating, he shortens it to Pi, and even learns the sequence of numerals in pi up to several hundred.
Young Pi is inquisitive about the universe, and collects religions like others collect butterflies. He is not only a Hindu, but he becomes Christian and Muslim as well. He believes that animals have souls, even to the point of almost losing an arm to the new tiger, named Richard Parker after a paperwork mix-up.
The family decides to leave India for Canada, and the animals and family are put aboard a Japanese cargo ship. During a thunderstorm, Pi goes out on deck to glory in the power of the storm. This saves his life, as the ship sinks and he ends up on a lifeboat with a small menagerie of animals that includes a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker. Given Darwin’s laws of survival of the fittest, soon it is only Pi and the tiger.
The rest of the film is the two creatures surviving in an open boat in the middle of the Pacific. At first, of course, they are enemies, as Richard Parker sees Pi as lunch (I’m reminded of a wonderful Gary Larson cartoon, where a cow and a man are in a lifeboat. The man sees the cow as a steak, and the cow sees the man as a pasture of grass). But soon Pi realizes he needs Richard Parker to stay alive, as trying to outwit the cat and keep him alive is also keeping Pi alive.
This portion of the film is suspenseful and interesting, and the tiger, which I have to believe is all CGI, is expertly done. Some of the other animals–the orangutan, and a colony of meerkats, are less convincing. In fact, a whole sequence on an island full of meerkats, which may work in a novel, does not work on film, neither visually nor metaphorically.
Also, the framing device, of Khan telling the story to a Canadian writer, Rafe Spall, is very clumsy. I love Khan as an actor–he’s one of those performers I could watch read the phone book, but Spall has nothing to do but look awed.
As the young Pi, Suraj Sharma is very good, though he’s often upstaged by Richard Parker. Ang Lee, who directs, has surrendered much of it to his special effects wizards, who are the story here. There’s some amazing shots, such as a school of flying fish, the shipwreck, or my favorite, a whale breaching, surrounded by luminous jellyfish.
I recommend Life of Pi as a visual experience, but don’t expect to have your notions of God and the universe changed.
My grade for Life of Pi: B.