A writer (Rafe Spall) is looking for a new idea for a book when he’s told he should speak with Piscine Militor Patel (Ifran Khan), an Indian who now lives in Canada. The two meet and get to know each other. Piscine, who is known to his friends as Pi, begins to weave a tail about his early life as the son of Santosh and Gita Patel (Adil Hussain and Tabu). We learn he was named after a beautiful public swimming pool in France. His schoolmates would tease him about his name since it sounded like the act of urination so he made a big production at the first day of secondary school of saying he should be called Pi, like the mathematical symbol. His family operated a small zoo in a botanical garden in town and Pi was fascinated by a Bengal tiger known as Richard Parker. The tiger had been given the name through a clerical error. With a change in the local government in their Indian home town threatening the funding for the zoo, Santosh decides to sell all the animals and move the family to Canada. Some of the animals will be sold after they arrive in their new home, so the Patel family boards a Japanese cargo vessel with the animals in the cargo hold, and heads to their new life. During the voyage, a severe storm causes the ship to begin to sink. Unable to find his parents, Pi (played as a teenager by Suraj Sharma) gets in a lifeboat with the ship’s cook (Gerard Depardieu). A massive wave knocks the cook out of the boat and it falls into the water with only Pi and an injured zebra on board. After the storm passes, and with no other survivors in sight, Pi sees an orangutan floating on some debris and brings it on board. He also discovers a hyena has been hiding under the partially loosened lifeboat cover. It attacks and kills the injured zebra as well as the orangutan. Thinking he sees someone swimming, Pi throws out a life line; but as the swimmer approaches, Pi sees its Richard Parker. The tiger climbs aboard, kills the hyena and begins eating the zebra. Now, Pi must find a way to avoid drowning, dying of exposure and being eaten by a tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Director Ang Lee seems to enjoy taking on movies that, at the outset, seem impossible to bring to the big screen. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a film that required enormous vision and new techniques for making all the impossible stunts look realistic. The subject matter of “Brokeback Mountain” was the daunting obstacle to getting that film made and seen, and it earned Lee a directing Oscar. Now with “Life of Pi,” Lee has taken a book that he himself said was probably un-filmable and created a visual and emotional masterpiece.
“Life of Pi” creates a world that is unlike any other I’ve seen on film. The only thing that comes close is Pandora from James Cameron’s “Avatar.” It is a world of vivid colors, breathtaking beauty and constant danger. The long center section of the film takes place entirely on the lifeboat with Pi and the tiger as the only characters. While this might not sound like a recipe for fascinating storytelling, Lee’s mixture of visuals and Pi’s interactions with the beast creates a riveting and epic tale that keeps the viewer’s eyes and attention glued on the screen.
Suraj Sharma, who plays the version of Pi seen for most of the film, gives an emotionally charged performance. His grief, desperation, fear, joy and heartbreak radiate from the screen and envelope the audience. There’s no way any person with a heart and soul could see this film and not be touched by Sharma’s acting. Even the animals, all created with CGI, convey massive amounts of emotion and have distinct and vibrant personalities.
Nature is as much a character as Pi is. A storm of flying fish, the glow of bioluminescent plankton at night, a massive whale breaching the surface to feed, an island filled with meerkats, the nighttime sky awash with stars, a huge storm pounding the sea with rain, wind and lightning, all of it plays a role in telling this massive yet personal story of survival on the open sea. The digital effects team that is largely responsible for much of the film’s savage beauty will likely be nominated for an Oscar next year for their work. It is a striking example of how brilliant visuals, when combined with a great story and terrific acting, can add another layer of wonder to what is already an entertaining film.
“Life of Pi” is rated PG for peril, emotional thematic content and some scary action. There are numerous times Pi is threatened by the animals on the boat. During his journey, Pi deals with the loss of his family in a very emotional scene. He also accepts his impending death as he goes without water and food for a long stretch. There is an altercation between the family and one of the crewmembers on the ship. There are no language issues.
“Life of Pi” is one of the few films that actually uses 3D the way it should be. Instead of the added visual element being a cheap gimmick, the 3D gives the film a sense of life and reality. It adds depth in every sense of the word. I rarely encourage spending the extra cash for 3D but this time I’ll make an exception. But whether you see the 2D or 3D, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you see this film. It is a joy.
“Life of Pi” gets, wait for it, five guitars.
There’s only one wide release film out this week, but it’s a doozy. I’ll throw in a couple of art house movies just to make it more of a contest. Vote for the next film I see and review.
Citadel—A new father faces raising his baby daughter alone after a hooded gang murders his wife. Now the gang is back and this time they want his daughter.
Hitchcock—The tale of how Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Psycho” almost didn’t happen.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey— Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit, journeys to the Lonely Mountain accompanied by a group of dwarves to reclaim a treasure taken from them by the dragon Smaug.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.