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Review: Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)

Directed by: Ang Lee

Premise: A young man (Suraj Sharma) survives a shipwreck and finds himself stranded in the middle of the ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

What Works: Life of Pi is an ambitious and bold movie and it succeeds as both an adventure and a coming of age story. Much of the advertising for Life of Pi emphasizes the conflict between Pi, the title character, and the tiger as they struggle for survival on the lifeboat. That is central to the film but it isn’t the whole story. Life of Pi is a frame narrative (that is, a story within a story), as an older version of the main character recalls the events of his youth, and there is a lot to the story before it is set at sea. This could come across as annoying or distracting exposition but Life of Pi is a very smart story made by very skilled filmmakers and the setup is as important as anything later in the movie. Life of Pi is primarily about survival as the young man is stranded at sea with basic provisions and a tiger, but it is more than that. The early scenes establish Pi as a boy in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, and who spends his time weighing competing belief systems. The screen time invested in Pi’s religious interests bears fruit when the film transitions to the ocean. Pi’s story of survival is not just physical but mental and spiritual as well. Lost in the ocean and coping with the elements while also threatened by a carnivorous predator, Pi has to wrestle with the brutality of nature. The tension between the cruelty of life and Pi’s spiritual ideals makes this more than a movie about a boy and a tiger. That tension is played out beautifully in the filmmaking and the performances. This is a gorgeous film, especially while Pi is at sea, and as unforgiving as nature can be there is also an awe to the way the ocean and its inhabitants are filmed. In that way Life of Pi contrasts with The Grey, an excellent but monochromatic movie about a man struggling against the brutality of nature. In Life of Pi, beauty and cruelty often coexist and sometimes one portends the other. The picture also has a terrific performance by Suraj Sharma as Pi. He is often the only human being on screen and Sharma plays this role just right, conveying the burgeoning maturity of this young man and the philosophical conflicts of the film are visible in his face while he struggles to provide himself with the basic necessities of survival. One of the most impressive aspects of Life of Pi is what the filmmakers manage to get away with. The premise of the movie is fairly outrageous but Sharma’s performance and the exceptional special effects make it entirely convincing. Life of Pi also has an ending that ought to derail the movie but the filmmakers are so skilled and so smart in their execution that it ends up making the film even better and further complicates the rich and layered story.

What Doesn’t: In the outer frame of Life of Pi, the narrator claims that his story proves there must be a higher power at work. Whether the film actually does that is likely to depend on what the viewer believes when he or she begins watching the film. Life of Pi is malleable enough that it can be interpreted to confirm whatever the viewer believes before the movie starts rolling. It is unlikely to significantly alter or challenge the viewer’s mind but whatever a viewer’s beliefs, it is likely to give you something to think about.

Bottom Line: Life of Pi is a great film, one that combines the immediate struggle to survive with broader spiritual concerns. It matches those two elements together perfectly, resulting in a movie that is beautiful and thought provoking.

Episode: #418 (December 9, 2012)