“If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all,” warns Pi’s dad, who is committed to the supremacy of reason and who is, as rationalists often are in the imaginations of the devout, a bit of a grouch about it. But this piece of skeptical paternal wisdom identifies a serious flaw in “Life of Pi,” which embraces religion without quite taking it seriously, and is simultaneously about everything and very little indeed. Instead of awe, it gives us “awww, how sweet.”
Until the Bengal tiger shows up, and thank the divinity of your choice for that. Or, rather, thank Mr. Lee and the gods of digital imagery, who conjure up a beast — named Richard Parker, for mildly amusing reasons — of almost miraculous vividness. His eyes, his fur, the rippling of his muscles and the skeleton beneath his skin, all of it is so perfectly rendered that you will swear that Richard Parker is real.
What is and isn’t real — what stories can be believed and why — turns out to be an important theme of “Life of Pi,” albeit one that is explored with the same glibness that characterizes the film’s pursuit of spiritual questions. But Mr. Lee and his screenwriter, David Magee, have the good sense to put all of that aside for a while and focus on the young man, the tiger and the deep blue sea.
Mr. Sharma is a gangly, likable presence, with an emotional expressiveness that makes him good company, and sufficient humility to not mind being upstaged by a computer-generated kitty. Tales of lonely survival have a durable, almost primal appeal, and the middle section of “Life of Pi” confidently clears a space for itself alongside “Robinson Crusoe” and Robert Zemeckis’s “Cast Away.”
Part of the appeal of these stories is their intense preoccupation with practical matters, and the problems Pi must solve form the dramatic heart of the film. How will he secure food and clean water? How will he stay sane and hopeful? How will he avoid turning into Richard Parker’s dinner?
These questions are answered with equal measures of wit and wonder, and with only occasional moments of god-bothering. Unlike just about every other cartoon animal you can think of, Richard Parker, despite his name, is never anthropomorphized, never pulled out of his essentially predatory nature. The relationship that develops between him and Pi is therefore a complicated one, involving fear and competition as well as (on Pi’s end, at least) compassion and love.
It unfolds in a setting that is one of the great achievements of digital cinema, and a reminder that the eclectic Mr. Lee is, among other things, an exuberant and inventive visual artist. (In this respect it is an apt companion to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” speaking of tigers.) There are images in “Life of Pi” that are so beautiful, so surprising, so right that I hesitate to describe them. Suffice it to say that the simple, elemental facts of sky, sea and animal life are captured with sweetness and sublimity.
The problem, as I have suggested, is that the narrative frame that surrounds these lovely pictures complicates and undermines them. The novelist and the older Pi are eager to impose interpretations on the tale of the boy and the beast, but also committed to keeping those interpretations as vague and general as possible. And also, more disturbingly, to repress the darker implications of the story, as if the presence of cruelty and senseless death might be too much for anyone to handle.
Perhaps they are, but insisting on the benevolence of the universe in the way that “Life of Pi” does can feel more like a result of delusion or deceit than of earnest devotion. The movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes — or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all.
“Life of Pi” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). Violence, mostly bloodless, inflicted by and upon digital animals.
Life of Pi
WritersYann Martel (Novel), David Magee
StarsSuraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tobey Maguire, Adil Hussain, Tabu
Running Time2h 7m
GenresAdventure, Drama, Fantasy
- Movie data powered by IMDb.com
Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
Winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction
Pi Patel is an unusual boy. The son of a zookeeper, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior, a fervent love of stories, and practices not only his native Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.
The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them "the truth." After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional-but is it more true?
Life of Pi is at once a realistic, rousing adventure and a meta-tale of survival that explores the redemptive power of storytelling and the transformative nature of fiction. It's a story, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God.
Life of Pi
by Yann Martel
- Publication Date: May 1, 2003
- Paperback: 326 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books
- ISBN-10: 0156027321
- ISBN-13: 9780156027328