Life of Pi
I am afraid I have never read Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel. For a while there it was one of those literary sensations that everyone had either read, or were being pressed to read by those who had. One of my friends loved it, even though he'd come to it somewhat late - a couple of years after its 2001 release. But as much as he raved about how good it was, I never got much of an idea what was so good about it exactly. Its fanciful premise of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals didn't pique my interest. And I guess I was a little snobbish, but I tend to be skeptical of these "you have to read this!" literary sensations du jour. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was one of those, which, yeah, blechh.
Good thing for movie adaptations then, so that I only need spend 2 hours watching it rather than a few days reading it.
A Canadian author (Rafe Spall) visits an Indian man named Pi (Irrfan Khan) in Montreal, having heard that he has an amazing story to tell. Born Piscine Molitor Patel in Pondicherry, India, the young Pi (played by Ayush Tandon) grows up in the zoo owned by his family - father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu), and elder brother Ravi (Mohamad Abas Khaleeli). He is a spiritually curious child, exploring and adopting aspects of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths. At age 16 (played by Suraj Sharma), his father is forced to sell the zoo and migrate to Canada, travelling on the same cargo ship that is transporting the animals. In a violent storm, the ship capsizes and sinks. Pi is the only survivor, sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan - and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly devours the other animals. Boy and beast, stranded at sea together, must come to an uneasy understanding if they are to survive - in a story that, as Pi claims, will make you believe in God.
...aaand it didn't, not for me.TMBF's religious persuasion, if at all I have one, can best be described as agnostic bordering on atheist. Life of Pi did little to change that, even if I am generally open to films with a spiritual viewpoint. This one works best as an adventure story, and a visual-spectacle-heavy one at that. Director Ang Lee is no stranger to special effects, having helmed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, and the eye-popping sights here are enough to make me wish I'd watched this in 3D. The sinking of the ship is spectacularly terrifying, and Pi's encounters with bioluminescent algae are breathtakingly beautiful. The largely-CGI tiger Richard Parker is flawlessly lifelike, and only when you know that PETA never protested this movie would you realise that the tiger - who gets soaked and tossed about the lifeboat and almost drowned - isn't real.
When Life of Pi is an adventure about survival at sea, it's quite enjoyable. Pi's efforts to survive in a 20-foot lifeboat alongside a flesh-eating tiger are fascinating; first he builds himself a makeshift raft on which he can keep away from the tiger's reach, then he has to keep feeding it so that it doesn't just swim over and devour him. Richard Parker starts out as threat, then enemy, then a burden, and finally earns Pi's friendship and affection - but it is always incontrovertibly a wild animal, never a Disneyesque cute anthropomorphic sidekick. Also enjoyable are the early portrayals of Pi's life in India, that include amusing vignettes of how both boy and tiger got their names. Pi's spiritual curiosity as a child lends him the faith he needs to survive his ordeal (and informs one poignant scene in which he kills a living thing, a fish, for the first time), and a lesson his father teaches him about the tiger's animal nature gives him the knowledge he needs to keep them both alive.
It's when Life of Pi tries to be a religious allegory that it gets shaky. The "make you believe in God" part comes at almost the very end, after a late plot twist of the sort that's meant to call into question everything you've seen. And I'm not in the least bit convinced; I'm not even piqued. I can't imagine it persuading anyone to believe in God who isn't already a card-carrying member of a theist faith. (Which probably accounts for the novel's popularity; religious people love it because it affirms what they already believe.) Again, I have no problems with overtly spiritual films or stories per se; if I can accept a reality in which, say, superheroes exist, I can accept a reality in which God exists and is an ineffable omnipresent force in that story's world. But this whole movie builds up towards a six-word line of dialogue that is almost smug in its conviction that it will make a believer out of you - you, the audience. But it just... doesn't... work.
And it puts into sharp relief all of the film's other weaknesses. The most immediately noticeable is that it's often kinda slow; I rarely felt truly immersed in the story, rather I was always conscious that I was watching a movie and waiting for what happens next. (Although this is usually not a problem of the film's pacing per se, but more its inability to fully capture my interest from early on.) Once that ending comes around however, I also realized how aimless its plot was. At one point during the ocean voyage, they land on an island that turns out to be literally carnivorous - a man-eating island. This is what earns this review the Fantasy label, and not only is it a strange and tonally incongruous plot development, it also adds no support to the proof-of-God allegory. Nor does the childhood sweetheart Pi leaves behind in Pondicherry, or the quirky interludes about Pi's and Richard Parker's names, or even the entire relationship between the boy and the tiger. And for all of Pi's interest in three major religions, there's nothing Hindu, Christian or Islamic about those final six words.
So what we're left with is a gentle, warm-hearted, quirky lost-at-sea adventure story that's heavy on CGI spectacle, but also a little too slowly-paced. It's worth viewing on the big screen in Digital 2D simply for the gorgeous visuals - and yes, again, this is one I wish I'd watched in 3D. But as an allegory that proves the existence of God? Or even as a story that convincingly presents a reality in which God exists? Nope. In fact, its allegory is so unconvincing that I can only ascribe the novel's popularity to the fact that religious people still make up a far greater majority throughout the world than agnostics or atheists. I think most people who loved this book, loved it because it merely affirms what they already believe.
NEXT REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph
Expectations: man, sure took me long enough