‘Life of Pi’ Review

Published 1 year ago by , Updated September 11th, 2014 at 2:41 am,

Life of Pi Review starring Suraj Sharma and Richard Parker Life of Pi Review

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was long considered an unfilmable novel – and not without good reason. In the film version, the story revolves around a burned-out writer (Rafe Spall) who, in his travels, gets wind of a remarkable story about a man once shipwrecked at sea. The writer approaches the man, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), who promises to tell him a story that will not only awe him, but also make him believe in God.

We are then treated to a story starting in Pi’s younger years, focusing on his curiosity about (and eventual acceptance of) multiple religions – a practice which only exacerbates his pragmatic-minded father. Life takes a hard turn when Pi, as a young man (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma), is on a freighter with his family bound for America to sell their collection of zoo animals. When a freak storm sinks the ship, Pi escapes on a lifeboat with a small band of animal survivors in tow – including the fearsome tiger, “Richard Parker.” From there, the young man of many faiths must endure a trial of survival alongside his animal companions, learning many things about God and faith along the way.

Life of Pi is a cinematic tall-tale parable of the best kind, and stands alongside other acclaimed films in the genre, such as Forrest Gump and Big Fish. However, unlike those more whimsical tales, there is something deeper and more serious at work in Pi - but director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonBrokeback Mountain) manages to balance the serious elements with the fantastical ones, while making it all look truly spectacular (on a whole other level) thanks to his work in the 3D format. If you’re wondering: this movie is definitely worth the upgraded ticket price.

Pi vs. Richard Parker in Life of Pi Life of Pi Review

The fact that the film works at all is a minor miracle in and of itself. After an amusing opening (that feels very much in the same heartwarming and funny vein as Gump), the film segues into an epic disaster set piece before settling into its real identity: a single-setting drama where the stage is literally a lifeboat and makeshift raft, and our players are a newcomer young actor and an alternating mix of real and CGI tigers. Not a recipe for success, by most Hollywood standards. But Life of Pi beats the odds because of Lee’s masterfully versatile ability as a director; Sharma’s surprisingly strong presence as a leading man; and some fantastic effects work and animal stunt work that went into creating Richard Parker – who is sure to become another non-human movie character revered by many viewers.

Lee’s direction creates a wondrous visual palette for the film – from the earthy tones of the Indian and American settings, to the surrealist composition of the ocean sequences. Indeed, someone could run a filmmaking seminar on just the water sequences and their effects – and the 3D format is used to truly pull the viewer into the film, while firmly establishing the sense that Pi and Richard Parker are sharing a finite space on a vast stage. Specific sequences (like the freighter sinking or Pi encountering a whale in the midst of a bioluminescent sea) are enough to put most other 3D films to shame, as they offer a level of visual artistry that has hardly been matched by anyone working in the stereoscopic format. As stated, what’s so impressive about Ang Lee is not just his level of craftsmanship as a director, but rather his versatility: Hulk, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi are all very different films, but their respective visuals are all top-notch.

Suraj Sharma Bioluminescent Sea in Life of Pi Life of Pi Review

Spectacular 3D visuals abound in ‘Life of Pi’

The collection of actors who play Pi at various ages (actors Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon as young Pi, Irrfan Khan as older Pi) are all charming and likable, but Suraj Sharma achieves a star-making debut as young man Pi stranded on the boat. This film lives (or dies) on the strength of its leading man and his ability to hold the screen, and Sharma rises to the occasion in every way. The camera loves him, he’s charmingly funny, and he’s reasonably believable in moments of extreme emotion (tragedy, fear). He even manages the difficult task of engaging an animal/CGI character in a way that creates a great chemistry between the two – which is something that even veteran actors have a hard time with.

As great as Sharma is, though, it’s hard to deny that the real star of show is “Richard Parker,” the tiger that is stranded on the boat with Pi. Created from a mix of CGI and four actual Bengal Tigers, the animal character is an alternating mix of house pet lovability and fearsome (at times frightening) beastly impulse. The switches between real and CGI tigers are nearly imperceptible most of the time, and technical awards are certainly in order for those who helped create one of the more memorable movie characters of the year. (Side Note: if you know someone who is a cat lover, this is the movie to take them to.)

Richard Parker in Life of Pi Life of Pi Review

Richard Parker in ‘Life of Pi’

Where Life of Pi falls short of “classic” status is in David Magee’s (Finding Neverland) screenplay. The tone is well balanced, the character and narrative development is lively and focused (a bit of meandering here and there) and Magee finds places to inject real emotion into the tale; ultimately, the problem with the script is a thematic one. The opening and closing acts of the film (like the novel) deal heavily with the idea of spirituality and religion, centering around Pi and his choice to believe in many faiths – a seeming contradiction for most people. The middle act (on the boat/raft) is meant to be a parable in which “the writer” character (and subsequently we the audience) come to understand Pi’s views on God and life – but this is where the film version falls short.

The problem is that in the middle act, Magee shifts the story to a relationship drama between Pi and Richard Parker, and though there is still some time devoted to exploring Pi’s relationship with God during his trial at sea, that element of the narrative is superseded by the boy/animal dynamic and an indulgence on Lee’s part in the visual composition. The third act of the story (in both book and movie) attempts to throw in a twist and end things on a cumulative statement by Pi, intended to bring all the elements of the story together into a philosophical point about the nature of God – but I don’t think that resolution has the profound impact the movie seems to think it does.

Life of Pi starring Suraj Sharma Life of Pi Review

Suraj Sharma in ‘Life of Pi’

While Magee did a good job capturing the tone of the book and creating an interesting film out of a static setting, this is simply another case where the depth offered by a novel is somewhat lost in translation to the screen (specifically the spiritual elements that are explored while Pi is at sea). Time and reflection may help some viewers better comprehend the climax of the film, but others will be confused or disappointed with how things play out.

One could always make the argument that the movie version of a book is never as rewarding as the book itself – and while there’s a certain amount of truth to that, Life of Pi still stands as an applaudable achievement for Ang Lee, Suraj Sharma, the 3D format and the technical artists who created Richard Parker. If you aren’t put-off by the idea of exploring some new age concepts about life and spirituality, then this a film the entire family will enjoy during the holiday season.

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For an in-depth discussion of the film by the Screen Rant editors check out our Life of Pi episode of the SR Underground podcast.

Life of Pi is now playing in theaters everywhere. It is Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5
(Excellent)

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  1. I see the point about the theme of spirituality in the beginning and end sequences being less prominent in the middle section of the film, replaced by a story about the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. But I wonder if those two themes can be married by viewing Richard Parker as God, and the middle section as concerning people’s relationships with God. On the small stage of the boat and the raft, Richard Parker is omnipotent and terrifying. When he kills the hyena, we see him as a vengeful protector of morality. Pi distances himself from Richard Parker by building the raft, but even here Pi is vulnerable if Richard Parker takes to the water, so Pi placates him with offerings of food. This distant, vengeful, and terrifying God is reminiscent the God of the christian Old Testatement (I don’t know much about non-Christian religions, so will avoid drawing on them). But Pi’s relationship with Richard Parker changes at the moment that Richard Parker takes to the water. He learns that Richard Parker is vulnerable, and dependent on Pi for his survival. At the same time, Pi realises that he depends on Richard Parker, so he saves him rather than allowing him to die. Pi realises that the relationship is one of mutual dependency, and even mutual affection. This closer relationship, characterised by mutual love and dependency is reminiscent of the God of the New Testament, who sacrifices his son to save people, but who needs people’s love and, depending on your point-of-view, people’s faith. This is just a brief sketch, but my point is that perhaps the middle section is more closely connected to the first and last sections than is initially apparent, if the theme of spirituality is seen as being explored through the relationship between Richard Parker and Pi, which represents different types of relationship between people and God.

  2. Never read the book but heard from people who have and they raved on about it. Fell in love with the trailer and amazed and pleasingly surprised by the movie. Only way to see it is in 3D. Doesn’t felt contrived like Burton’s Alice in wonderland where they have stuff thrown towards the screen for no good reason, Ang’s 3D is part of the story telling. Omg to the visual design of the film. I cried and felt for the animals. I thought the final 5min monologue revealing the sadder ‘true’ account where he’s the Tiger part of the story was a perfect conclusion, letting the audience think for themselves, without breaking the narrative and flow of the movie. Beautiful film

  3. another insight i just want to share..

    Pi is richard parker that killed the hyena “cook”.. and the boy PI in the boat is God who didnt leave him despite everything and even after he saw each animal murdered one another because he understands their nature.. He may actually be narrating as if he is in God’s point of view.

    This is further reinforced in the beginning of the film where Pi’s father told him to look in the eye of the tiger and he will see himself.

    Pi was the tiger. sadly like most humans after he got to safety he didnt even look back to the God that helped him.

  4. both Pi and richard parker represented different parts of his personality, with richard parker representing his feral/ base survival instincts.

    The whole point of the boat was surviving out there on the water without having your baser instincts consume you (richard parker)

    and the reason richard parker didn’t look back is because when he was no longer needed, Pi could no longer feel his primal nature anymore, and he almost missed it, as it had gotten him through his ordeals

    The whole “GOD” theme was that it didn’t matter what religion, or beliefs you hold, sometimes you have to believe in something, just like how Pi believed his made-up story in order to deal with it.

    In a greater sense, it really doesn’t matter if god exists or not, it’s the message that matters, and it is faith itself, not god, that gives you strength.

    • Yes, and that is the fatal flaw of the entire movie (and possibly the book, I haven’t read it). That is just not real faith, it’s something else. I don’t know what it is actually… the message of the movies seems to be that it’s a self imposed delusion layered onto a cold, ugly reality to make it bearable. I would argue that’s a unbelieving view of faith, but not genuine faith. Real faith does not believe in spite of, but because of. It challenges the things it doesn’t know with the things it does.

      Also, the palette is not nearly so dichotomous as the movie makes out. Even from a detached, agnostic view, reality is far less clear than either/or.

  5. My version is that Pii suffered from hallucinations during his time on the boat and created a story a story based on his experiences and his imagination and his belief in God, but had to make it more real to satisfy the Japanese investigators. Great film but not as spiritual as many would think although I haven’t red the book. The part about the meerkats really strains any credibility about the story – such a thing is impossible.

    The technical aspect, especially the digital animals – is awesome. Worth an Oscar.

  6. This film is horrible.

    And yes it is technically superb. The somber way the director charms the story to the viewer. Until…the realisation kicks in like a solid brick. That the subtext maybe the truth. And the horror of that, is the horrible.

  7. What I truly see in this awesome movie is God’s creation at large; specially for what man was created for

  8. I was left at the end trying to understand the 2nd story PI told the Japanese investigators because of his accent. I only could partially make out what he was saying. It wasn’t until I went back to several different interpretations of the story online that I grasped the 2nd story that made the whole movie have sense. Maybe sub-titles would have helped as it went rather rapidly. The island made no sense whatsoever.

  9. Loved the movie. Watched it twice on blue-ray. Fell in love with the tiger. After reading all the commentary, I am still in doubt about what the movie was saying about God. Perhaps the point is we can never really know God, but we do get glimpses of him. I thought the meercats were kind of like the general population today. Overpopulated and just existing. I do kind of wonder how they survived on this carnivorous island. Also the fact that this Bengal tiger does not even show himself until several events happen on the lifeboat makes me wonder if he is really there. So the thought that Richard Parker is a metaphor for something else is appealing, but I don’t grasp what that something else is

  10. I found the movie highly entertaining and I would like to see it in 3-D. The three-faith belief system really doesn’t hold up at any depth. The three religions are very different.

  11. I just wanted to make comment to Kofi Outlaw: I very much enjoyed reading your excellent review on the film Life of Pi. I concur with all that you observed and wrote about it, but I could not have couched it so well. Thank you.