Movie Review – Life of Pi (2012)

Posted on by Dave

David Mayne
See Also: Book Review ‘Life of Pi’

As a lifelong fan of movies, games, music, and pretty much anything “entertainment”, it’s hard to watch, play, or listen to anything without granting it at least some redeeming quality. I count myself not a movie-snob, or an under-appreciated scholar whose views are finite and void of criticism. To me, film can mean many different things to many different people. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure goes the saying, right? I have been sometimes chastised for my admiration of certain M. Night Shyamalen films for example, yet if I dared to weigh-in negatively on such holy grails as, say, Joss Whedon or George A. Romero, I would be met with many what-are-you-kidding-me’s! Some people like slow-burners, while others like men in masks swinging from buildings. Still others like a good romance, and some prefer stories where vampires love werewolves. Cinema affords us the opportunity to discover and embrace the things WE like, not the things other people tell us we should or shouldn’t. Reviews are, for lack of a better explanation, wordy diatribes about why or why not we, as writers, did or didn’t like a film. Some writers will try to convince you, with lengthy abandon, why one scene worked and another scene didn’t; why character (A)’s acting was deadpan, while character (B)’s was worthy of an Oscar nod, but how Character (C) ruined it all and therefore doomed the movie. Some reviewers will speak of things like character progression, under or over-use of CGI, intelligent vs. amature directing and story writing, yet at the end of the day, it’s up to the viewer to decide. Or is it? In today’s strangling atmosphere of advertising bombardment, where opinions are given to you to accept, rather than to consider, many films are dead in the water before they’ve even had a chance to float. In a day when a franchise concerning a supernatural love triangle takes in more at the box-office than films created to move and inspire, I often wonder just how any young, aspiring filmmakers maybe look in the mirror and question whether or not they should soldier-on with their films that don’t only appeal to bubblegum teens and the almighty dollar.  Perhaps there is more to be learned from a line around the block for Red Dawn and roughly 10 people (including me) at a viewing for Life of Pi. Maybe people prefer Thor to tigers.

Film (done right) is a visual medium unsurpassed in its ability to convey to the viewer deeply emotional and meaningful messages, to transport you into another world for a few short hours and to leave you with a sense of wonderment and awe. Many films simply skim the surface of good, let alone “great”, and when those seldom few do come along, they are a treat for the senses, an experience for the mind. Life of Pi attains everything in this paragraph, and while it has yet to be given the attention it deserves (and probably will if it manages to win any awards next year), it will undoubtedly be remembered as one of cinema’s better entries. Is it perfect? No, not many films are, but is it spectacular? Yes.

Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hulk, Brokeback Mountain), tells the tale of…well, a man named Pi. Based on the novel of same name, the film introduces us to the (adult) character of Pi (Irrfan Khan) as he is beginning to recount his life story to a writer (Rafe Spall), who will pen the novel based on Pi’s life.  Pi’s story takes us back to his early life in India, where he tells of being intrigued by religions of every kind, curiosity about the world, and a deep longing to find meaning in everyday life. Pi’s parents also own a zoo, where Pi becomes fascinated with a young Bengal tiger curiously named Richard Parker, whom Pi feels some sort of connection with. After almost being attacked by Richard Parker, Pi learns a harsh lesson from his father (Adil Hussain) about how and why animals are not to be thought of as people, thus his life is forever changed as he slowly loses his naive view of the world he had imagined as being mostly innocent. With political unrest approaching, Pi’s father decides that the family will sell the zoo and move to Canada, to begin a new life. Pi (now 16 and played by Suraj Sharma) is somewhat heartbroken, yet accepts this new path and the family loads the animals on board a shipping vessel, as they will sell them once they arrive. At sea, a major storm destroys and sinks the ship, but not before Pi is able to make it to the lifeboats where a few of the crew and passengers are attempting to un-hitch the raft from its moorings. As most of the animals onboard are also loose, a scared Zebra jumps into the boat, breaking its legs, and inadvertently launching it onto the perilous sea below, Pi holding on for dear life. As the ship sinks below the waves, Pi is faced with the realization that his entire family is dead and he just might be next. As he struggles to stay aboard the lifeboat, he notices a dark shape approaching the craft and soon realizes that the tiger, Richard Parker, is attempting to get on to the boat. The storm rages, and so begins this epic story.

Visually, Life of Pi is a feast for the eyes, with an artist’s magnificent brush painting nearly every scene with beautifully tragic imagery of desolation, loss, and foreboding. The colors are warm and bright by day, black and still by night. There were times where I had to snap myself out of it, realizing that scene after scene was completely wrapping itself around my eyeballs, inviting me to get lost along with Pi and Richard Parker. The cinematography is masterful and really sets off the amazing art design much like a fine Bordeaux sets off a medium-rare Filet Mignon. The scene of the cargo vessel sinking still vividly haunts my mind’s eye, an almost gut-wrenching coming of age for Pi, as his entire world is plummeting to the bottom of the raging ocean, and his baptism at sea while he curses and questions the Gods. Where are they and why can they not help him.

The religious connotations in Life of Pi are impossible to dismiss, and one would be a fool to not notice the overwhelming feeling that, in the same circumstances, we as humans wouldn’t do the same thing. Pi, an already incredibly spiritual person, goes through a major transformation on his journey, both in his views concerning life and survival and to his connection with Richard Parker. In several deeply moving scenes, Pi questions both himself and the existence of god in one breath, while praising and asking for faith and guidance in the next. You don’t need to be a religious person to enjoy Life of Pi, and I did not for a second mind the sometimes heavy overtones of spirituality. Out of options, faced with certain death, I believe we as humans would all look up to the sky at some point, like Pi does, and ask for help. Would it hurt?

Suraj Sharma is brilliantly magnificent in the role of 16-year-old Pi. Few actors can pull off the “they don’t look like they’re acting” look, but Sharma does it throughout, and it serves to seal the landscape of the already jaw dropping visuals and heady themes. Pi’s father, Sanotesh (Khan), was also a testament to the seriousness Lee wanted to impart, not only into Pi’s upbringing, but into the foundation of the story as well. Sanotesh’s love and devotion to his children was matched only with his need to teach Pi and his brother the meaning of rational thought, responsibility, and realism. Even as Pi was exposed to many religions and traditional Indian customs, Sanotesh was always there to remind Pi to consider more than just “superstitions” and tradition, to see and understand the REAL world around them.

Lastly, Richard Parker is a sight to behold, and one of the major forces that makes Life of Pi work so well. Except for a few scenes in which he was in the water, Richard is completely CG, and perhaps the best animal CG I have ever seen. I personally didn’t realize this going in, and when I did, it made it that much more amazing. The emotional bond between Pi and Richard shows in every crinkle of Richard’s face, his whiskers, and his ruffling fur. As his mighty muscles tense under beautiful orange and black striping and his dull yellow eyes burn holes into your very soul, we are reminded that we are watching one of evolution’s best examples of the perfect killing machine and not some cuddly stuffed animal. Cheers to Rhythm & Hues Studios, who did the visual effects for Life of Pi, the film shines because of them.

What makes me like Life of Pi so much is that its complete simplicity makes it completely complex. It doesn’t have to try to get across what it needs to. It doesn’t have to shove the message in your face for you to understand. It puts a young man on a boat with a tiger, in the middle of the ocean, and lets the imagery, story, and emotion have its way with you. I found myself in awe at the sheer magnitude of the over and underlying themes of this film. I found myself invested in Pi and Richard Parker, and I found myself caught up in their perilous fight for life amidst a world and a god that had seemingly turned its back on them. Life of Pi doesn’t ask that we believe, it asks that we simply look.

5 out of 5


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