For many people, Life of Pi couldn’t be captured on film. Featuring a massive shipwreck that forces a young man to share a life boat with a tiger for an extended amount of time, adapting this literary favorite seemed foolish. The advancement in technology certainly made the impossible seem more practical, but hesitation surrounded any adaptation. Facing many directors and iterations over the years, Life of Pi finally found the proper caretaker in director Ang Lee, a visual maestro that constantly dazzles the eyes and quietly infiltrates the heart. Lee almost seems destined for a project of this nature because, on paper, Life of Pi promises a wondrous setup and an unwavering thematic density. Minus the technical nature of the project, Lee’s biggest obstacle revolves around the secluded nature of the story. Much like Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Life of Pi pertains to the isolated struggle of one protagonist fighting against Mother Nature and an inner turmoil that’s ready to crest. Our adventure at sea begins with a quick introduction to Piscine Patel (Suraj Sharma), a smart teenager that arduously earns the nickname “Pi” after he correctly recites the mathematical constant to an insane degree.
Deeply interested in educating himself about the world, Pi gravitates toward a collection of religions (Hindu, Christianity, and Islam). Pi proudly absorbs and speaks of each religion as if it’s his own, much to his secular father’s chagrin. Ironically, Pi’s acceptance of God falters when his family packs up their zoo in Pondicherry and takes a freighter, with all the animals, to Canada. While on their way, the freighter gets ransacked by an unsavory storm. In a scene that is profoundly sad and masterfully composed, chaos consumes the freighter as the Patel’s animals escape captivity and run amok amidst the cavalcade of sailors braving the crashing waves. Miraculously, Pi finds himself on one of the freighter’s life boats while his family, along with most of the animals and ship’s crew, are hauntingly swallowed by the sea. Amazingly, Pi isn’t alone on the boat. His water locked journey on the boat features a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, an orangutan, and a vicious tiger named Richard Parker. The untamed, pervasive nature of the animals shakes Pi’s faith, leaving him in a territorial battle with Richard Parker.
Over the unpredictable current of an unknown body of water, Pi and a dangerous tiger are forever tethered to one another as they float aimlessly against hunger and a tumultuous environment. The journey experienced between Pi and Richard Parker is majestic and triumphant. As alluded to earlier, Ang Lee weaves an emotional tale of survival with vivacious visuals that are as buoyant as the life boat trapping our protagonist. In what is the most impressive display of special effects dedicated to film this year, Life of Pi makes us believe in the world set before us. Outside of a glowing whale and the sinking of the freighter, the film’s biggest technical achievement exists in Richard Parker’s cinematic existence. Meticulously rendered and full of personality, Richard Parker is a magical creation that feels tangible. Yet, for as wondrous and beautiful as the visuals are, Lee’s true success lies in the evolving relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. The changes are subtle and gradual, as these two beasts learn that their survival is contingent on one another. Richard Parker can’t eat without Pi’s help, and Pi’s mind will slip into complacency without having to support Richard Parker’s needs.
Framing the desolate journey is another terrific score from Mychael Danna. Danna’s score, much like Lee’s direction, doesn’t intend to manipulate the audience through cloying tactics. Rather, it captures the distance between Pi, Richard Parker, and God. Featuring swelling notes and strands of music that feel like hymns, Danna evokes all the emotions that Lee intends for us to feel. No matter how precise Lee’s emotional incisions are, he can’t quite make the film’s narrative divergences work fluidly. This is not to say the film suffers greatly, but when the screenplay shifts from Pi’s survival to the present, where Adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) is telling his story to a writer (Rafe Spall), momentum is momentarily stifled. Realistically, I don’t know how Lee could’ve made these scenes standout or work without interrupting the film’s flow. Even with this minor shortcoming, Life of Pi is a tremendously poetic and stirring film, one that casts us out to sea in search of hope. By the end, we find it.