While it was still in its peak of popular phenomenon, I was required to read “Life of Pi” for a high school English class. And that’s about where the novel belongs. It’s ideal for that kind of setting because it’s a book that naturally evokes discussion and its ideas aren’t too difficult. It’s about the nature of storytelling and its importance in conveying the distinctly human qualities that can’t be communicated in pure recitation. The movie follows the book pretty closely.
Adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn), a man of Indian decent now living in Montreal recounts to an author (Rafe Spall) his world famous tale about how, as a teenager, he survived almost a full year at sea, in a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
From beginning to end, the movie features beautiful cinematography, composition, and special effects. In an age where many Hollywood movies employ cheesy CGI as functionality rather than art or skilled craftsmanship, “Life of Pi” is refreshing. The CGI Richard Parker is seamlessly inserted into the movie and looks so good that much of the time I couldn’t tell the difference between it and a real tiger.
I especially liked director Ang Lee’s compositions in the first act, which is a coming-of-age story in India. He employs a lot of aesthetically pleasing, formalist compositions that break the screen into three spaces and illuminates them with a rich colour palette.
The first act is also the most superior part of the movie. It looks great and Pi and his family are compelling characters. I enjoyed Pi’s passion for religion and his quest to simultaneously learn the texts of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.
To create the ocean scenes, where the vast majority of the movie takes place, the world’s largest self-generating wave pool was created specifically for this movie. Naturally, the sky and horizons are CGI placed onto green screen. It speaks to the movie’s production values Lee decided to film in real water as opposed to creating a CGI ocean. It would have been much easier to do it that way but CGI looks its best and holds up for longer when it’s combined with something real.
Unfortunately, the movie becomes stagnant once Pi settles into the lifeboat. It’s not that there’s nothing going on, there certainly is. After all, he’s stranded on a boat with a tiger. And there’s still a lot to look at. I don’t know why the life leaps out of the movie at this point. Maybe it’s because movies by nature are a fluid art and require more frequent transcendence of space.
I did enjoy the mini story where the boat runs ashore an allegorical island. The island provides food and water but in return eats away at its inhabitants. It’s a sure, safe place one can settle for on a journey towards something better, but a place that simultaneously takes something away from you.
I admire the audacity of 20th Century Fox for making this movie. They shelled out $120 million for what is essentially an art film, and in that sense is a peculiar case in popular filmmaking. Despite the enormous popularity of the book, it was risky and a tough sell for the studio but it paid off. The movie made over $600 million at the worldwide box-office, proving that with the right marketing, people are willing to see this kind of movie. Granted, the movie appeared much more mainstream in the marketing.
Also, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was missed by the Canadian film industry to adapt this novel to the screen. Although the Canadian novel sold over 10 million copies worldwide, it was a particularly huge cultural phenomenon here. For years you couldn’t look at someone’s bookshelf and not see a copy. Although the Canadian film industry couldn’t support a budget the equivalent of $120 million U.S.D., some ingenuity in its filming could be conceivable. It’s the kind of property the struggling industry has always seemed to be searching for.
*** (out of 5)
David Jackson can be reached at email@example.com