'Life of Pi': Beautiful story, beautiful film

This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

“Life of Pi”


Fox 2000 Pictures

2 hours, 7 minutes

Years ago I read an excellent, thought-provoking book called “Life of Pi.” It’s the kind of book you want to pass on to people, to share the experience you just had. However, in describing the basic elements of the plot, I got a lot of the same reaction. “It’s about a kid stuck on a life boat with a tiger,” I’d say. The look of confusion was always followed by one polite dismissal or another, leaving me to repeat the same phrase over and over to the different people I tried to interest in the story. “I know how it sounds, but it’s really good. Really!”

Finally, Hollywood has managed to bring this story to the big screen through the talents of acclaimed director Ang Lee, succeeding where a host of big name directors had failed. I was excited to see this story brought to life, and I’ve been trying to talk it up, but I find myself in the same position I was all those years ago. “I know how it sounds, but it’s really good. Really!”

“Life of Pi” is really good. Lee has managed to take a story many felt was unfilmable due to its philosophical nature, as well as long scenes of isolation, and made an intense visual spectacle out of it. Unlike a lot of special effects driven films, however, this doesn’t serve to cheapen the story or reduce the plot. The glory of the cinematography and the gorgeous palette add an element to the film that enhances the central theme of the book, that is, the search for God.

Pi, or Piscene Molitor Patel, is a boy with more questions than answers. Growing up in India, he sampled different faiths, different paths to God, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. His father, a zookeeper, tries to tell the boy that he’ll have to choose, that if you try to believe everything, you will gain nothing. But Pi isn’t so sure.

Soon enough, his faiths will be tested. When his family decides to leave India, selling their animals to zoos in North America, the whole clan and their menagerie board a Japanese freighter headed for New York. Unfortunately, a particularly vicious storm will end the journey prematurely leading to the film’s predominate conceit — a boy, stuck on a life raft for weeks on end, with a Bengal tiger.

It would be easy to undersell this film by talking up the amazing look of it. Not only is the aforementioned cinematography stunning, but the CGI work done on the tiger, named Richard Parker after the man who captured it, is unbelievable. The tiger effect is literally the best computer animation I’ve ever seen. Ang Lee said before the filming began that if he wasn’t able to achieve a state where you couldn’t tell the difference between a real tiger and the virtual one that occupies much of this film, then it wouldn’t be worth doing. He’s right, and he did it. I was blown away.

But that’s all nuts and bolts. Great, but the true genius of this film is the story. The tale of Pi and Richard Parker takes you to the highest of highs and to the depths of despair, but has a hopefulness, a kindness that is rare in Hollywood filmmaking today.

In addition to discussing themes such as the indomitability of the human spirit, and the role of faith in our lives, “Pi” plays almost as a nature documentary, particularly in exploring the nature of Richard Parker. I don’t remember if it made it into the movie, but the book had a very interesting argument concerning the concept of a zoo. Zoos, many well-meaning animal activists contend, are cruel prisons, caging wild beasts that want nothing more than to run free. Not so, the book’s author Yann Martel, explains. Wild beasts want what everyone wants. Food and a safe place to sleep. In that sense, a zoo is a perfect place for an animal, those cages perfect for keeping out predators. I’m sure this isn’t always the case, but the point is that “Life of Pi” offers you a new way to look at wild animals, without ever anthropomorphizing them.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a talking tiger movie, where half-way through the movie Richard Parker opens his jaws and out comes the voice of Sean Connery. The tiger is wild, and the movie never lets you forget it.

I was incredibly pleased by the translation of one of my favorite books to the big screen with “Life of Pi.” This is a beautiful story, sad, exhilarating, funny, and, at times, quite dark. When it’s all said and done, it gives you a lot to think about. This isn’t the kind of thing that you’re going to want to run right out and watch again. Take the chance to see it while you can, however, because with a raft of big releases on their way to the theaters over the next month, “Pi” may not stay long. It’ll be back at Oscar time, though, I guarantee.

Grade: A

“Life of Pi” is rated PG-13 for frightening disaster scenes and adult themes.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.