The story of young Pi Patel and his long voyage across the ocean, adrift in a lifeboat with nothing but a ferocious Bengal tiger for company is the stuff of cinematic dreams. “The tiger is not your friend,” Pi’s father tells the boy in an earlier scene. Pi will soon learn the wisdom of his father’s words.
Based on a celebrated novel by Yann Martel, Life of Pi tells of young Piscine Patel, better known as simply Pi, a boy who lives with his family in India. Pi’s father runs a zoo, but because of an impending economic hardship, the father decides to move everything to Canada, including the animals. Pi is not happy. “We will sail like Columbus,” Pi’s father states, trying to put a positive spin on the relocation. Pi isn’t buying it. “But Columbus was looking for India,” the boy responds.
What happens next is a catastrophe of epic proportions. While floundering through a violent and brutal seagoing storm, the ship transporting the family and all the animals sinks, but not before young Pi rescues himself by jumping into a lifeboat. His family are never seen again, neither are most of the animals with the exception of a zebra who in a startling moment of sublime movie magic and imagination literally leaps off the deck of the sinking ship into the lifeboat, followed by a hyena, an orangutan and finally, a tiger amusingly called Richard Parker because of a clerical error. “Welcome to Pi’s ark,” states the boy as the orangutan climbs on board.
For the rest of the film, we’re adrift, alone with the boy and the tiger – the other animals fall away – and there’s not a dull moment to be had. Simply put, in Life of Pi director Ang Lee has made the epitome of movie magic using all current tricks available to him to create images so magnificent in their execution you’ll be asking yourself repeatedly, “How’d he do that?”
The earlier scenes where we learn of Pi’s childhood, how he got his name – Piscine was the name of a French swimming pool – and what life was like living with his family and running a zoo are all grounded in a sense reality, but once the boy is lost at sea, the setting, tone and look of the film takes on a fantastical quality. Luminous jelly fish, giant whales, and a carnivorous floating island are just some of the boy’s encounters at sea that defies adequate description. The question you ask yourself once you recover from yet another stunning image is, has Life of Pi intentionally changed from a reality based story into a fairy tale or are the events of what is happening to the boy so horrific that the only way his mind can cope with this tragedy is to view everything as a fantasy? Those who have read the book know the answer.
There are many images throughout that will startle; the leaping whale, the flying fish, swimming under an ocean surface so still it appears as if the swimmer is floating in mid-air. These are moments that will leave you spellbound, but nothing comes close to one certain image that occurs when Pi glances over the side of the lifeboat to see the face of the tiger looking back up at him from the water’s surface. It’s an image of astonishing humanity made manifest by computer generated imagery that will be hard to forget. Life of Pi is magnificent.
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 127 minutes Overall Rating: 9 (out of 10)