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“Life of Pi” is a Visually Stunning Film That Will Leave You Talking

November 26, 2012

By John C.

Since it was published in 2001, Canadian author Yann Martel’s acclaimed and also confounding novel Life of Pi has captivated readers throughout the world, and those who deemed it unfilmable were proven wrong last Wednesday when director Ang Lee’s visually stunning adaptation opened in theatres.

After a delightful opening credits sequence that makes great use of the 3D with close ups on different animals, the film begins in Montreal with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling the story of his life growing up on a zoo in India to a writer (Rafe Spall).  Although Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) favours science over religion, his mother (Tabu) is raising him in the Hindu faith.  But one day he finds himself in a Christian church and becomes entranced by the statues of Jesus on the cross, and later finds a Mosque where he discovers Islam.  His acceptance and belief in these three religions is a testimony to the power of his faith.

But when his family decides to sell their animals and move to Canada, the ship they are travelling on sinks during a storm.  The teenaged Pi (Suraj Sharma) is left stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with only an injured zebra, crazed hyena and gentle orangutan to keep him company, along with a large Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.  The circle of life ultimately takes over, and Pi finds himself alone on the boat with Richard Parker, struggling to keep the tiger fed and them both alive.  Their journey is a struggle against the elements that in many ways helps Pi come closer to his faith, while his animalistic need for survival alongside the tiger starts to emerge.

Although Suraj Sharma is a complete newcomer, he effortlessly carries Life of Pi throughout the most challenging scenes, delivering a physically and emotionally demanding performance in the title role.  Equally excellent is acclaimed Indian actor Irrfan Khan as the adult counterpart of the main character, and their performances are under the guidance of Taiwanese director Ang Lee.  After winning an Oscar for Best Director for the way that he so eloquently handled the relationships at the heart of Brokeback Mountain in 2005, the fearlessness of Ang Lee’s work as a filmmaker shines through in the visuals of Life of Pi, as he creates an entire world aboard a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The visual effects and cinematography are stunning throughout Life of Pi, with the perfectly balanced use of 3D allowing the depth of the water to extend into the screen as the waves seemingly wrap around us and splash against the glasses.  Equally impressive is the breathtaking animation of the tiger, Richard Parker.  The way that his fur falls over the muscle and fat, moving with the wind as he leaps through the air, offers the best example of a digital animal working alongside a human actor that I have seen.  As he loses weight throughout the story, his fur starts to sag against his skeleton and the bones in his paws suddenly become visible.  Richard Parker is a stunning example of movie magic and he undeniably becomes real within the film.

Even though Life of Pi has been advertised as a big family film, it really isn’t appropriate for the young kids that will inevitably be brought to the theatre.  Although a lot of the disturbingly gory scenes from the novel are only alluded to in the film, I’m still not quite sure why they decided to go with a PG rating.  The riveting shipwreck sequence and the subject matter of the last act seem deserving of a PG-13, and there is an intensity that is felt throughout the film.  But the decision to try and reach a broad target audience with an adaptation of a heavy book is a move that clearly paid off for 20th Century Fox, as is evidenced by the fact that it has already picked up just over $30 million at the box office since last Wednesday.

While watching Life of Pi, I felt the exact same emotions that I did when reading the book.  I just love all of the stuff on the lifeboat as well as the genuine bond and mutual respect that is formed between Pi and Richard Parker.  These scenes have been brought to screen in a way that is as exciting as it is visually stunning, unfolding with the same sense of wonder and harsh need for survival that is felt by the characters.  But just like I experienced when reading the book, the final few scenes of the movie left me grappling with my emotions.  At the beginning we are told this is “a story that will make you believe in God,” but in the end it is a book and film about storytelling and what we accept as truth, leaving any spiritual interpretation up to what the reader or viewer already believes.

Although I won’t spoil it here, I will say the ending is one that I have had mixed feelings about ever since I finished reading the last section of the book.  I can respect the way that the story wraps itself up as well as the literary choice that Yann Martel made to write this ending, and I also understand how it works as a narrative device.  It’s just that it gives me a very different perception of the story than I had just a few minutes before it is revealed.  It’s not that I mind the deeper meaning that it brings to the table, just that I’m not sure what it’s trying to say in comparison to the simple faith and belief that is such a part of Pi’s life, leaving the religious overtones up to debate and the overall message open to discussion.

But I have no doubt in my mind about how much I admire everything that happens on the lifeboat before this point in the story, and the bond that forms between Pi and Richard Parker has been brought to life in a spectacular way.  Although I still find myself sorting through mixed emotions about the way that Life of Pi ultimately ends, the fact that I can’t stop thinking about it might just be the point of the story.  This is a visually stunning film that is absolutely worth seeing and is sure to leave you talking.

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