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Life Of Pi

Life Of Pi

By Pete Turner • April 25th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
20th Century Fox

Release date: April 29th, 2013
Running time: 127 minutes

Director: Ang Lee
Writers: David Magee (screenplay), Yann Martel (novel)

Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Life Of Pi

Agnostics and devout atheists might want to give this one a miss. When a character proclaims near the start of a film that by the end of his story, he will make you believe in God, you’ll likely expect something deeply spectacular, profound and most of all, some pretty damn good evidence of the existence of a higher power. If like me you’re highly sceptical of man-made religions, there’s nothing in Life Of Pi that will make you see the light. Agnostic brothers and sisters will need to keep searching, pondering and staring into space with no answers. Atheists can unsurprisingly relax. There’s nothing to prove you wrong here, thereby sentencing to you to hell for eternity.

If on the other hand you are a follower of any faith, there’s much to delight and to confirm your belief here. Just don’t expect the rest of us to rush out of cinemas and suddenly come flocking in to your places of worship with a renewed religious fervour. Nevertheless Life Of Pi is an inspiring and surprisingly emotional film filled with wonder, awe-inspiring visuals and a character to root for in the stranded, bereaved but determined Pi.

Based on a best-selling novel by Yann Martel, the surreal, slightly magical and uplifting story centres around a young Indian boy named Pi Patel. Beginning as a very spiritual son of a zoo keeper, he lives with his family in Pondicherry in India until they decide to move to Canada. However during the emigration on a large freighter with his family and the zoo’s animals, there’s a huge storm and the ship sinks, leaving Pi shipwrecked on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Life Of Pi

Told mostly in flashbacks as the older Pi (Irrfan Khan), now living in Canada recounts his tale of survival at sea to a visiting author (Rafe Spall), there’s an hour of character building before it actually gets to the ship sinking and survival section of the story. We first meet Pi as a middle aged man telling the story of his life from his early years at the Pondicherry zoo and eventually getting to the specifics of his sea-faring adventure. These early scenes feel a little drawn out as we learn how Piscine Patel got his name (from a swimming pool in France) and the reason he became known Pi for short. They also introduce the spiritual themes of the film with the young Pi taking a shine to three religions by the time he’s a teenager. However the persistent disruptions in the story by cutting back to the older Pi quickly wear thin with too much exposition and what could have been a swifter introduction to the character.

What works in the first hour of the film is the relationship between Pi and his parents (Adil Hussain and Tabu). His father is a businessman who lacks faith but his mother is more open to Pi’s pious ways and it is a shame to not learn more about these characters as they provide interesting character dynamics, particularly around the family dinner table. A love interest for Pi is introduced but there is not time to develop this as the family are soon packing their bags to set sail for Canada.

Ang Lee and director of photography Claudio Miranda provide absolutely stunning visuals throughout but aside from the opening shots of the animals in the zoo, the first half lacks the opportunities for images of extraordinary power that the second half provides. After a thrilling and terrifying storm that sinks the freighter, Pi is left on the Life Of Piocean, almost alone in a lifeboat for much of the second half. The sinking is heart-wrenching; at once breathtaking in its surreal shots of unleashed zoo animals going overboard and swimming for their lives and for the devastating emotional impact of what is to become of Pi’s family. Lacking music for much of the scene, it’s only once Pi is ‘safe’ aboard the lifeboat that Mychael Danna’s score rouses the feelings of loss felt for Pi.

While it takes a while to get here, this is where the story is really set and the scenes of Pi adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a hyena, zebra, orangutan and Bengal tiger are brilliant handled. Not only are the interruptions from the present day Pi and the author dismissed for some time, but the survival of Pi finally injects some real drama and conflict into the tale and allows Lee and Miranda to show off some mind-blowingly beautiful cinematography. While the animals fight each other and are soon picked off one by one, Pi learns to survive, even finding a way to co-exist on the lifeboat with the ravenous Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker.

The 3D visuals fill the frame with beauty from neon jelly fish to sunrise, sunsets and oncoming storms; it’s truly a wonder to watch. Richard Parker is an incredible creation both in terms of character and as a technical accomplishment. Not since WETA’s work in bringing Andy Serkis’ performances to life through computer Life Of Pigenerated visuals has a digitally spawned character managed to be so sympathetic and believable. It is gobsmacking to learn that ‘85 per cent of the shots featuring the ‘hero’ Bengal tiger… being computer-generated imagery (CGI)’ (Chokkapan, 2012) ¹
. It’s technically astounding and a vital reason for the story being so affecting. Pi and Richard Parker’s relationship is a constant source of conflict, humour and finally heart-tugging emotion and it’s what makes this film unforgettable.

Life Of Pi has taken eleven years to get from page to screen but is absolutely worth the wait. Ang Lee has created an unbelievably cinematic treatment of the novel. Though the film itself takes its time getting to the heart of the story, the cinematography is spellbinding, the score is stirring and newcomer Suraj Sharma gives a heartfelt and compelling performance as hero Pi. Just don’t expect it to turn atheists into believers.

[1] Chokkapan, 2012 http://www.ciol.com/ciol/news/122897/how-life-pi-tiger-richard-parker-roared-life

Pete Turner

Pete Turner

Peter is a film and media lecturer and currently writing his PhD thesis on found footage horror movies. This means he must endure all sorts of cinema’s worst drivel in the name of academia. If that wasn’t punishing enough, Peter enjoys watching films with brutal violence, depressing themes and a healthy splash of tragedy.

If Peter isn’t watching films, he is writing about them, talking about them or daydreaming about them. He regularly contributes to Media Magazine and a range of film websites. You can find his film blog at www.ilovethatfilm.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @ilovethatfilm.

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