Movie Review: Life of Pi
By Matthew Huntley
November 28, 2012
When readers of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi learned it was going to be turned into a movie, I suspect their first question was: how? How do you take such a rich, imaginative story, with themes of spirituality that are more conceptual than tangible, and put them on film? After seeing Ang Lee’s adaptation, the answer becomes oh so clear and we leave the theater not asking how Lee did it, just thankful that he did.
I recently read and enjoyed Martel’s book. Whether that makes me subconsciously biased toward the film, I can’t say for sure, but what I can say is it exceeded my expectations. And because the movie is so striking and well made, I’m confident it would have been just as engrossing had I not read the source material. Just as Martel did, Lee utilizes simple yet classic storytelling devices, which prove highly effective. With a likeable hero; an incredible conflict; and a thoughtful, moving ending, Life of Pi becomes a film of relentless beauty and energy, the kind we wish would go on forever.
What makes Life of Pi - both the book and film - even more remarkable is that it engages us despite us knowing how it ends. We know, for instance, that Pi, the main character, will survive his lost-at-sea journey because he’s the one narrating it to us. You’d think this information would hinder the story’s efficacy and suspense, but that’s hardly the case, probably because this is hardly your average story.
In the present day, Pi (Irrfan Khan) is a college professor in Montreal , recounting his tale of survival to an author (Rafe Spall) in search of a new idea. He sets it up by telling the author he originally came from a working-class family in the French-occupied area of India called Pondicherry; that his father (Adil Hussain) and mother (Tabu) turned the local botanical gardens into a zoo; that his name is actually short for Piscine (there’s a whole other story that goes along with this, but I’ll let you discover it); how he came to practice Hinduism, Christianity and Islam and that he considers himself a Hindu, Christian and Muslim all at the same time; and that he once loved an Indian dancer named Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath).
We come to care for Pi early on, not least for his zest for and curiosity of life. This leads into the heart of the story, when Pi (Suraj Sharma) is a teenager and his father decides it’s best for the family to leave India and start a new life in Canada. He says they can sell the zoo animals for a higher price in North America, so they pack them aboard a Japanese freighter and set off. However, the ship runs head-on into a perfect storm and only Pi and a few animals manage to escape in a lifeboat. For the next 227 days, Pi must learn to survive on his own, both physically and psychologically.