“LIFE OF PI” Review (✫✫✫)

A boy, a boat, and his bengal tiger.  

If there is any film that will stick out in your mind more than any other film in 2012, its going to be Life Of Pi.  How could it not be?  With spectacular visuals, daring execution, and a solid story, Life Of Pi may very well be one of the most memorable experiences of the year, even though that doesn’t strictly mean it is of the highest standard in movies.

Based on the novel of the same name by Yann Martel, Life Of Pi follows the story of Pi “Piscine” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a young indian boy who is a believer in many religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.  To Pi, all of these religions lead to the same path: a greater understanding and relationship with God.  In one wonderful moment of the film, he described faith like a mansion, with room for both belief and doubt on every floor.

Besides being a follower of many faiths, Pi’s family also runs a local zoo in India, an exotic place filled with vibrant species and animals of all kinds.  Most significant to Pi is a 450-pound bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who got his name after the hunter tha caught him switched the names around by accident, with the hunter’s name appearing on the sheet as “Thirsty”.  The name stuck on Richard Parker ever since.

Eventually, the day has come where Pi’s family can no longer support themselves in India and have to move themselves and the animals to Canada, where they can hopefully find a living and start anew.  But when the ship his family and livestock are on crashes and sinks into the Pacific Ocean, Pi ends up stranded on a lifeboat all alone with Richard Parker. Now, armed with little more than a life-vest and the clothes on his back, Pi must find a way to not only co-exist with Richard Parker, but to also find a way to tame him and stay alive in the lonely abyss of the ocean.

The best thing about this movie is its faithfulness to the original novel, in how it portrays Pi as a strange, introverted, religiously diverse human being but also a spiritually focused young adult.  Pi’s story is a unique one, with the film dwelving into his story with such emotional maturity and observation, that we cannot help but understand Pi and his spiritual connection to God.

I especially loved one line Pi said to a friend at one point at the film, but when looking at it through a closer lens, maybe he was saying it more to himself:

“Even when God seemed to have abandoned me, he was watching.  Even when he seemed indifferent to my suffering, he was watching. And when I was beyond all hope of saving, he gave me rest. Then he gave me a sign to continue my journey.”

I also like the connection Pi shares with this 450-pound man-eating animal named Richard Parker: dare I say they have chemistry with one another? Yes I can, because the tiger is rendered here with such precision and detail that he actually looks like a living, breathing man-eating animal, not just another CGI creation. The rest of the movie is no exception, as it takes us  through many wonderfully dazzling visual moments that are just as impressive as when we watched James Cameron’s Titanic for the first time.

Here is, truthfully, a genuinely good movie.  The score is settling, ambient, and beautiful.  The visuals are transcendent, amazing, and stunning.  And the underlying context Ang Lee adapts from Yann Martel’s novel retains its strength, as Lee knows how to balance emotional relevance with visual splendor.

Unfortunately, the greatest strength of this film is also its greatest weakness: it follows too closely to the original novel.  Thinking back to when I read the book back in high school, I remember a story that was ambitious, daring, creative, deep, emotional, spiritual, and unique all at once.  It wasn’t just another survival-fantasy-advenure: it was a spiritual journey that has as much to do with faith and God as it does with friendship and sacrifice.

The movie doesn’t reach into this idea as deeply as the book does.  That’s to be expected, considering books are typically more in-depth than their movie counterparts.  Still though.  Haven’t other book-to-movie adaptations benefitted moreover their novel counterparts when they branched out and embraced other possibilities the original writers didn’t?

I bring two other novel adaptations from earlier this year as an example: The Hobbit and The Hunger Games.  Those movies, unlike Life Of Pi don’t just retell their stories: they rework them.  They change it to better fit their narrative, and they expand upon the stories they are helping to re-create within their own cinematic universes.

Life Of Pi doesn’t do that.  It relies too heavily on its novel-based counterpart, it refuses to branch out any more than the pages of Yann Martel’s novel will allow it to, and it has one of the slowest beginnings ever known to mankind.  The scenes where an older Pi converses with a young novelist searching for a story were especially unnecessary: why not just replace thirty-minutes of exposition with a simple narrative voice-over?

Again, I will stress this: Life Of Pi is the most memorable film of the year.  That does not mean that it is the best film of the year, and that does not mean that everybody will enjoy it.  It just simply means that when somebody watches the movie, it will mean something to them.  Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

Still though, to have a movie that actually says something for a change is significant enough.  Take the ocean Pi is trying to survive itself as an example.  One could say it is symbolic to everyone’s spiritual journeys in life: there are quiet moments, and then there are chaotic ones.  But your journey is never truly complete, even if you do end up washing onto the shore.

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