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Life of Pi

January 10, 2013
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I don’t like to watch the movie until I’ve had chance to read the book but for this film, I was won over by the bold and vibrant cinematic trailer. Also, my girlfriend did read the book so I think I should get partial credit for that.

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Life of Pi, based on the book of the same name by Yann Martel, is about a boy, Piscine Molitor Patel – but let’s call him Pi. Growing up in a zoo run by his father in Pondicherry, Pi is raised Hindu but explores Christianity and Islam as well along the way. This religious buffet lasts until he is 16 when his father decides to move the family to Canada, to provide a better life for his sons. This is just enough time for Pi to fall in love with a local girl (whom he will never see again).

All of this is being narrated by an adult Pi, by the way, to a young novelist looking for inspiration.

During a storm at sea, the ship they are on runs into difficulty. Pi is rudely thrown into a lifeboat and cast off, before he can rescue his family. From the black tempestuous waves, he watches the ship sink and his family (presumably) drown. The day after the storm, he finds that he shares his lifeboat with a lame zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (clerical error). With the predictable consequences of having a 220 kilo carnivore on a small boat, Pi is soon left alone with Richard Parker.

The rest of the film details the odyssey of Pi and Richard Parker, with Pi’s growing realisation that caring for the tiger is keeping him alive and (more or less) sane. This involves some spectacular scenes of flying fish, whales and meerkats, as well as informative scenes on survival at sea, especially with a Bengal tiger.

While I liked this film, I can’t that I’m overawed at it. (I may have to eat these words in a few weeks’ time when the Oscars are awarded). Other than establishing his faith in God, Pi’s backstory has little to do with the plot. Furthermore, I found the sinking of the ship strangely bereft of excitement. Since it is narrated by Pi, we know that he must eventually survive everything anyway. I’m aware that there’s probably a great deal of subtext that I have probably overlooked, so consider this the review of an uninformed Philistine.

Suraj Sharma performs admirably as the Pi most often seen onscreen, doubly so when you realise he must be acting against a mammoth roll of green screen and CGI. The rest of the cast do not have enough screen time to leave any memorable impression, other than they probably did a good job.

Speaking of the special effects, I must concede that this is a very beautiful film. From the opening scenes of the zoo in Pondicherry to the fantastic creatures on the ocean, this film is visually quite stunning. This is also a rare example of a film where the 3D effect is used well. Like in Avatar, it is used to enhance what can called a work of art, instead of throwing gurning projectiles and shrapnel at the audience.

This film will do very well, both commercially and in terms of the accolades it will inevitably pick up soon. However, it was not quite my cup of tea. Though it tries to be a bit more thoughtful than most films, I can’t shake the feeling that, watching it, I was skimming across the surface of an ocean deep with subtext. That’s not to say it isn’t eye-wateringly beautiful. Ars gratia artis and all that jazz. It has succeeded in one respect however: It has driven me to pick up the book. For a movie adaptation, that is probably the most meaningful measure of success.

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