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When I first heard about the film adaptation of Life of Pi, I was highly skeptical. Though I’ve never read the source material, I understood it to be one of those books that, from a narrative perspective, would be incredibly difficult to put to film. I didn’t expect Life of Pi to be adapted into a cohesively formed feature-length movie. With Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) at the helm and David Magee (Finding Neverland) adapting the screenplay, Pi ended up in about as skilled of hands as a potential movie could hope for. The lead actors, particularly teenage (newcomer Suraj Sharma) and adult (Irrfan Khan) Pi, also bring a charming depth to the main character, and most of the visuals are breathtaking. The final on-screen product makes for an incredibly admirable movie that falls just short of being great.
Life of Pi is told through the framing device of an older Pi (full name Piscine Patel) recounting his life and tales to a Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall, who plays with a certain level of believable eagerness). Pi’s life has been fascinating from the start, as he learns to swim with an eccentric uncle, explores various world religions (he considers himself Hindu, Christian, and Muslim all in one), and grows up on his father’s zoo in India. His relationship with his father is also interesting, as his father does not condone his son’s eagerness to explore world religions, offering instead a viewpoint skeptical of religion in general. Pi also has a fairly normal older brother, a loving mother, and a young love interest he meets in school in India. The driving part of the story begins, however, when Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo and leave for Canada in order to offer the family a better future. Pi and family set out for Canada on a Japanese commercial ship, when tragedy, in the form of a deadly sea storm, strikes. Marooned on a lifeboat (with an adult Bengal tiger), Pi must now survive the perils of the open ocean.
Life of Pi would have been a fascinating movie had it been solely about Pi’s struggles to befriend the tiger and survive his tragic ordeal. The marketing for the movie left me with the impression that Pi and a tiger were the sole aspects of the film as a whole. That Life of Pi delves so much into Pi’s entire life story was a welcomed surprise for me. To his credit, David Magee adapts the screenplay well. The only part I really don’t care for is the framing narrative itself, which is awkward to write about being that I enjoyed Khan and Spall’s performances so much. The framing narrative utilized in Life of Pi is just a bit too generic for my tastes. I can see why Magee would choose to write the film in such a manner, and I respect what the film is trying to do, but it doesn’t work entirely well for me. Fortunately, Life of Pi is largely in Ang Lee’s hands, and he directs the film with the deft and grace of a master director. Along with Scorsese, Spielberg, and Tarantino, Lee is one of the best living, working directors of film. Even if I don’t like all of his movies, Lee certainly deserved his Oscar win for Life of Pi.
It would be hard to write about this film without mentioning the gorgeous visual effects. It is true that there are moments with they seem a bit unrealistic (particularly an underwater sequence that was prominently used in marketing efforts), but the level of sophistication in the tiger (as well as the zebra, orangutan, and hyena) is downright marvelous. It is unfortunate that the visual effects studio behind Life of Pi, Rhythm & Hues Studio, has faced financial difficulties, as their work here is admirable. I saw Life of Pi at home on my 3D set-up, and I thought the 3D worked well. Unfortunately, a significant portion of the movie itself is not in 3D. The most visually exciting parts of the film, which include the dramatic sea storm and Pi’s time on board the lifeboat, are the best moments of 3D in the film.
I really liked Life of Pi, but I didn’t love it. I enjoyed the principal performances in the film, particularly from Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, and Rafe Spall. The character of Pi leads a fascinating life and it is well told by Magee and brilliantly directed by Lee. The framing narrative leaves a little to be desired, but it at least gives us the interactions between Khan and Spall, which were some of my favorite moments in the film. I did feel Life of Pi dragged on a tad too long, and I thought the film would have benefitted from a shorter conclusion that was more open to interpretation from audiences. I also thought the visuals were incredibly strong overall, despite a few hiccups in a dream-like sequence. Life of Pi is a solid movie that deserved its four Oscars, and I recommend checking it out.