With its blend of fable, oft-unexplored elements of nature, and coming of age tale Life of Pi invites viewers to partake in a feast of rarity in film. The movie asks the easily distracted masses to sit still for two hours and trust in the tale as originally written on page, with each “chapter” offering a new brand of conflict. Unlike many films Life of Pi isn’t about the climax, it’s about the journey.
The tale revolves around young Indian boy Pi Patel’s (Suraj Sharma) adventure while lost at sea. When the ship carrying his family is overcome by a storm, Pi finds himself stranded in a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, frightened hyena, melancholy orangutan, and a ravenous tiger. Pi must stretch the limits of what he thought possible of himself in order to survive, while encountering a plethora of spiritual and nature-defying conflicts along the way. Without giving the story away, the film culminates in a twist that while un-shocking to me having read the book, puts the entire film into perspective and makes the viewer want to go back and re-analyze some of Pi’s decisions.
Screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) has transformed Yann Martel’s fable-like introverted novel into a magical experience full of action and suspense. While the novel is an amazing read, the reader often finds themselves wading through page after page of uneventful monotony as Pi drifts through the endless ocean contemplating the very nature of existence. Without altering Martel’s original story, Magee has extracted the most eventful moments of the book and upped the tension and human drama to compensate for the lack of location changes and character introductions. In addition, the novel’s spiritual elements have been left intact and somewhat concentrated to “run in the time allotted.” Rather than write for pages about Pi’s devotion to many different religions, Magee has the opportunity that only a screenwriter can take advantage of by showing us in one fell swoop Pi’s spiritual devotion through a man vs. nature plotline at it’s best: One boat, one boy, one tiger.
The film struggles in certain aspects, but these things are to be expected: it clocks in at over two hours long and a majority of screen time is spent in a boat. All of the expected conflicts occur: lack of food, water, and shelter; typical lost at sea stuff (apart from the whole giant bloodthirsty tiger deal). Magee, along with director Ang Lee’s (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Taking Woodstock, Brokeback Mountain) faced the challenge of taking an “Old Man and the Sea” sort of storyline and crafting it in a way that it wouldn’t drag. While achieved for the most part, there are definitely periods of time where Pi’s sense of slow boring death is shared with his audience.
The climax of the film is less eventful than is expected of a standard screenplay. In the novel Pi eventually lands on a carnivorous island lost to Darwinian lore. While the film version of Pi also arrives on the island, much to my sadness Pi’s exodus was handled with no more drama than the novel captured. Pi simply leaves the island without much conflict physically or emotionally, a decision that leaves the viewer with a feeling that something more should have occurred.
While many experienced actors lend their talents to the film in minor roles, newcomer Suraj Sharma definitely carries the role of Pi in the way that only a talented unknown could have. Because Suraj isn’t famous, he feels more like a real person stranded at sea. He draws from raw emotion throughout the film, making even his more trivial struggles seem heartbreaking while at the same time an underlying humor surfaces at just the right moment to break the tension and re-invigorate the senses. Pi’s struggle to survive comes to a head as he is forced to bludgeon a fish for survival, while apologizing to God and the fish for forsaking his vegetarian ways. It’s a credit to Magee for the writing, but Suraj does the script a great service by capturing the lack of dialogue and action with a quiet frustration that left me both laughing and sorrowful in unison.
While many will be flocking to take in blockbuster movies this week, Life of Pi offers a unique cinematic experience for those looking for an engaging night out shared with a visually stunning fable. It’s a movie that ebbs and flows like the changing tide, leaving the watcher with a satisfying sense of peace as the last scene finally rolls out.