When I was handed Life of Pi in my senior year literature class I was apprehensive. Here was a book in which most of the action occurs on a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. How exactly was it going to capture my attention? Yann Martel’s story was so surprisingly breathtaking and insightful, that his story of Piscine “Pi” Molitor Patel’s 227 days on a life raft with a Bengal tiger ranks among my favorite novels. Naturally, I was worried sick when I heard that a film adaption of Life of Pi was being produced.
The film is framed by the adult Pi telling his story to a writer. The Pi’s story begins with scenes from Pi’s childhood and adolescence in Pondicherry, India. Several of these early scenes take place at his family’s zoo, where his connection to animals grows. Richard Parker, the zoo’s Bengal tiger, especially piques Pi’s interest. His curiosity leads him to try to feed the tiger, but his father stops him and demonstrates the tiger’s ferocity in a violent lesson in which Richard Parker kills a goat in front of the young Pi Patel. Another large part of opening sequence involves Pi’s religious convictions. Though he was raised in a practicing Hindi family, he is drawn to both Christianity and Islam. Despite being told that he cannot possibly practice all three, Pi persists in his religious journey – he simply wants to love god (God?). This quest, however, becomes somewhat lost in the impressive graphics and effects that highlight Pi’s 227 days at sea.
Having been forced to sell their zoo in Pondicherry, Pi’s family decides to relocate to Canada where they will sell the remaining animals from their zoo. The family embarks on the Tzimtzum, a Japanese freighter, across the Pacific Ocean with their animals on the decks below them. Destined for disaster, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and Richard Parker. After a few days, Pi and Richard Parker are the only surviving creatures on the white lifeboat.
Pi is equipped not only with the supplies on the lifeboat but also by his religious conviction. He must establish his own territory and his own dominance over Richard Parker in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The relationship between tiger and boy grows deeper, and there exists an intimate and unexplainable connection between the two. This sequence is where Suraj Sharma’s performance shines. Pi’s will to live and his religious odyssey, which are some of the film and book’s central themes, are drowned in the graphics and special effects. The scenes of Pi and Richard Parker are certainly some of the most breathtaking in the movie. Scenes of brilliant, yellow skies reflecting on the ocean and a bioluminescent whale jumping over the lifeboat overshadow the story’s deeper meanings.
Ang Lee turns Life of Pi from a fable on faith and the human spirit into an adventure film. I cannot deny that cinematography, graphics, and effects are masterful. The graphics team perfectly captures Richard Parker; they make his presence seem real rather than animated. Considering Sharma was acting alone on that lifeboat, his performance is beyond extraordinary. He perfectly captures the innocence, emotion, and energy of Pi in his first role.
When Pi is finally rescued, insurance agents sent from Asia to acquire Pi’s account of the freighter on which he, his family, and their animals had travelled. Responding to their disbelief of his seemingly irrational story, Pi offers them a less fantastic, reliable account of his journey. The writer to whom Pi Patel is recounting his story must decide for himself which version is real, introducing larger questions of man’s nature and the power of fiction. I do not fault Ang Lee for directing Life of Pi in a manner that excites a visual and aural audience. In capturing a story of adventure, Lee succeeds. In capturing the Life of Pi that had me considering more meaningful issues of life and religion, Lee falls short. I don’t believe I am qualified to judge this picture’s chance of winning Best Picture, since I’ve only seen one of the other eight nominees. Life of Pi, it seems to me, doesn’t have the punch that wins an Oscar for Best Picture. Though Suraj Sharma delivers a captivating performance, the film relies on aesthetics more than depth.
Under the spectacular imagery, the film’s heart is palpable. The film beautifully captures Pi’s journey, though at times the graphics can be overwhelming. Though the adventure elements of Life of Pi may overshadow its more personal and spiritual meaning, it is possible to find the ideas of spirituality and self and morality. Pi’s adventure is captured for the screen, and so too is his inner odyssey. It may be buried beneath layers of superfluous computer-generated imagery and special affects, but the deeper meaning of Pi Patel’s 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger is perceptible.