Life of Pi – A Review

Back when I was in graduate school, a bunch of the other female students in my department decided we wanted to start a book club. We all enjoyed reading, but were finding it hard to justify the time to read for leisure when there was always another book, article or court case to be read. (Side note – A professor once overheard me mention a television program in casual conversation with a friend and asked me how I possibly had the time for such frivolousness. No time for TV? It’s amazing I lasted as long as I did in grad school. And P.S. – mind your business, Prof.) We figured if we made the commitment to the book club, we wouldn’t feel so guilty about carving out a little time to read one “fun” book a month. We also thought it would be nice to have some girl time – there weren’t a ton of women in the department and I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that often times we felt marginalized. The book club would allow us to engage in one of favorite hobbies, while also giving us a forum to talk about things we probably wouldn’t bring up around our male colleagues.

We did pretty well for a while and dutifully read our books and attempted to discuss themes and other issues related to what we had read. But gradually, these gatherings – like most book clubs – became more about socializing and less about discussing the books. People stopped being as faithful to reading the selected publications and we spent more time eating snacks and having a cocktail than anything else. As people moved away or left school, the club slowly began to fall apart. By the time we made what would be our final book selection, I was the only person who had read the book.

That last selection was Life of Pi by Yann Mertel and while I was fine with the book club disbanding – it had served its purpose – I was bummed out that I didn’t have anyone to discuss the book with. I really enjoyed reading it and more than any other book that we had previously read; it loaned itself to actual discussion and interpretation. What did everyone actually think happened? Sometimes you just want to talk something out to see how other people felt about it and Life of Pi was one of these instances. I felt the same way after I saw Vanilla Sky by myself; I wound up eavesdropping on other people as I was leaving the theater to get a different perspective. Over the years, while I’ve found some other people who read Life of Pi, the majority of them didn’t like it and really had no interest in talking further about it. So while I liked the book, I felt like a major component of the experience had been denied to me.

Despite my enthusiasm for the book, I was a bit skeptical when I heard that it was being adapted for the screen. In many ways, Life of Pi seems like an un-adaptable project; I had no idea how they were going to translate so many of the fantastical elements of the book to a movie. It just didn’t seem possible. Even the early previews for the film didn’t do much to draw me in. But I like the work of director Ang Lee (I may be the only person who didn’t hate his 2003 Hulk) and the film was getting some early Oscar buzz, so I dutifully went to the theater to see it opening weekend.

While it wasn’t my favorite movie that I saw over the Thanksgiving holiday, Life of Pi definitely exceeded my expectations. Lee and company created a visually stunning film that also managed to stay relatively close to the story of the book and overcome some – but not all – of the difficulties in bringing this story to life. Life of Pi is a story of survival and spirituality and may be the best use of 3-D that I’ve seen in a film since Avatar.

The film tells the tale of Pi, a young man growing up in his family’s zoo in India. As a boy, Pi collects religions the way that some young boys collect baseball cards and has to be reminded by his father that the animals in the zoo are not his friends. When Pi is a teenager, the family falls on hard times and it is decided to close the zoo and move to Canada. They board a Japanese tanker ship – along with numerous animals to be sold – and begin their journey to a new life. A storm capsizes the boat and Pi finds himself in a rescue boat with an unlikely companion – his family’s Bengal tiger. Pi must fight the elements and the tiger’s true nature to survive.

Life of Pi is an absolutely gorgeous movie. The colors are vibrant and the cinematography is sweeping. It is a testament to the advances in technology that tiger that viewers see in the majority of scenes is completely computer generated. Logically, I knew this – even the best trained animal would be unable to perform what is required – but visually, they had me fooled. The film is full of lush colors and exists somewhere in between real and imagined. Things don’t always look real, but they don’t look exactly artificial either; Life of Pi hovers in the middle, in more of a hazy dreamlike state. This is probably a film worth splurging on 3-D to see and that’s coming from someone who isn’t a big fan of the technique.

The narrative, unfortunately, never quite lives up to the visual spectacle; this is not to say, however, that the story is not enjoyable or is problematic. Newcomer Suraj Sharma does a fine job of showing the range of emotion that Pi must endure in his struggle. Not much is altered in the plot during the transition from the page to the screen, but some of its spirit seems to be. The film is limited in how deeply they can go; a book can delve much more into the thoughts of a character can than a movie, especially a movie when the character is lacking for people to interact with. A book makes it much easier to get into a character’s skin than most movies, just by the differences in the mediums. It is a beautiful film dealing with some big themes, but it ultimately feels a little shallow. My memories of the book may have clouded my overall impression of the film; I’ll be curious to hear what people who haven’t read the book think. I also thought that occasionally the film moved a bit slowly.

What I can’t emphasize enough is that this is not a film for small children; this is not Dr. Doolittle. The presence of animals does not indicate that Life of Pi is appropriate for all audiences. While there are moments of wonder, there are also moments of (implied) violence. The animals featured in the film behave like animals; it’s nothing worse than you would see on Animal Planet, but it could be upsetting for some children. The young boy sitting in front of me was so upset by the film that he and his mother had to leave the theater (which I was totally OK with because that kid also wouldn’t shut up). I don’t think they knew what to expect. If you have an extreme sensitivity to animals occasionally in pain or peril, this might not be the movie for you. It’s sporadic and not gratuitous, but the animal kingdom can be a brutal place.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • While the CGI is overall spectacular, the scene with the whale didn’t quite meet the level of reality that the rest of the movie obtains.
  • The focus on the movie is naturally on Pi after he is stranded, but I really enjoyed the early portion of the film about his childhood and where his unusual name came from.
  • Though I really have no interest in going there to visit, I do find depictions of India fascinating.
  • Meerkats make everything better.
  • The day after Thanksgiving is a crazy day to go to the cinema – lots of extended families who have exhausted things to talk about. You could almost feel the sigh of relief when the movie started and people had a 2 hour reprieve from their relatives.

I thought Life of Pi is a good, but not great movie. Its strength lies more with its visual components than in its narrative, though it is telling an interesting and unique story. The film does a much better job of bringing the book to like than I ever would have expected, but I still thought that some of the magic was missing. I don’t know that this would make my best picture nominee short list, but I understand why it is in the conversation. I may have exhausted my wonder with the book; knowing too much about the story does seem to take a bit away from the film. But perhaps once more people see the movie I’ll finally be able to have the discussion about how people interpret it that I’ve been waiting to have since 2004.