Film Review- Life of Pi – Ang Lee

Life of Pi – Polaris Film Review

Robin Wijnhold


“This is a story that will make you believe in God,” protagonist Pi says in the beginning of Life of Pi directed by Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Hulk). The intention – a modern day spiritual epic – is immediately set, and although the spiritual side is a bit too much at times, an epic experience it sure is.


The story, based on Yann Martel’s international bestseller, was long deemed unfilmable and over the years many directors – including Jean-Pierre Jeunet – showed interest in the project but eventually did not dare to take the challenge.


The film opens in the ‘French Riviera of India’ Pondicherry, where Pi and his parents own a zoo. Beside for the occasional name-calling from his classmates (his full name is Piscine Militor after a French swimming pool, which sounds awfully lot like “pissing”), Pi lives a quiet life and shows a keen interests in all major religions. Luckily, the film’s spiritual pretention is largely kept at bay by its good sense of humour, for example when in a prayer Pi thanks Vishnu for introducing him to Jesus.


After a dispute with the local government, the family decides to move to Canada. They take all their belongings – including exotic animals – aboard a Japanese ship, and set sail.  A storm causes the ship to sink, leaving Pi and a tiger, named Richard Parker, as the only survivors, stuck on a lifeboat adrift at sea. This is where the movie really takes off.  


Though the visuals where already impressive before the shipwreck, now they take centre stage and do so with stunning beauty. Especially the poetic tranquillity of the scene where Pi hangs suspended underwater watching the ship sink is one to remember.   Magic realism come to screen. One breathtaking composition follows the other – from a mosaic of luminescent deep sea creatures to a carnivorous island filled with meerkats – Lee manages to use every inch – and more – of the empty canvas that the still ocean offers him.


Meanwhile a tense relationship between Pi and the tiger unfolds on the lifeboat. It’s man vs. Nature; not only do they need to survive the harsh conditions at sea – they also need to survive each other. It is praiseworthy that this part remains realistic, not only because of the masterful CGI, but also because Richard Parker remains a dangerous animal throughout. The story never descends down the ladder of Disney clichés where a dangerous animal suddenly becomes man’s best friend.


It is a shame that the acting of Suraj Sharma, who plays younger Pi, does not match the quality of the rest o f the film. It is decent, but not subtle enough to be truly convincing. Especially the part in which he cries in despair over his hopeless situation is not as powerful as the scene would have demanded it to be.


Also the original score by Mychael Danna does not match the overall quality of the film. It supports the story at best, but does not add anything extra. A special mention needs to be made to the often criticized 3D technology. It matches, if not surpasses, the use of 3D in James Cameron’s Avatar or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Without overdoing it or solely using it as a gimmick as so many movies do, Lee manages to employ its full potential, thereby adding a tiny bit of extra magic that a story like this deserves.


The story is told in flashbacks by an older Pi who tells it to ‘the Writer’ Yann Martel. These two alternating points of view are a clever piece of storytelling and ad a sense of realism to the movie. However, the scenes itself – older Pi and the Writer preparing food –feel superfluous at times and occasionally offer an interpretation to events where an interpretation was better left to the audience. Nevertheless, the questions they raise are bound to make you ponder for days after.


Life of Pi is likely going to be hailed a masterpiece by critics and the general public alike. Yet, though visually it certainly is stunning, the film is neither subtle nor balanced enough to be considered a true timeless masterpiece. Nonetheless, it is a landmark piece of cinema.  It won’t make you start believing in God (whichever one) but it will sure make you believe in the marvels of CGI technology and Lee’s undeniable visual story telling talent.