With Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall. Written by David Magee. Directed by Ang Lee. Rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. 127 minutes.
LIFE OF PI is an adaptation of the popular novel about a young man who is trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. It’s a contrived premise but if you buy into the contrivances it turns into a riveting story. The problem isn’t in the execution. Scenes with the tiger may be examples of movie magic but the seams don’t show and it’s easy enough to accept what we’re seeing on screen. The problem is in what it all means.
Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is travelling to Canada with his family and a host of wild animals. After a certain amount of vamping, we finally get to the storm that sinks the ship they are on and leaves Pi on a lifeboat with various animals, eventually reduced to just a Bengal tiger he dubs “Richard Parker.” The bulk of the movie is how Pi and the tiger survive without killing each other.
It’s a fascinating metaphor. Pi is, naturally, afraid of the man-eating tiger but doesn’t have the means or, frankly, the desire, to try and kill it or hurl it overboard to its death. The tiger may not be able to reason things out, but we come to understand while it could devour Pi, that would also be a path to its own eventual doom. The tiger needs Pi – whether it realizes it or not – to get them to safety. Pi, in an odd way, needs the tiger. Instead of drifting towards delirium and death, being trapped with the tiger keeps him focused on survival.
As directed by Ang Lee – and presented in <sigh> 3D – it is a film that frequently invokes a sense of awe. How will Pi survive during the months they are adrift? How will he make sure that the carnivorous tiger is fed so that it doesn’t turn on him? What amazing things will they see while adrift and alone on the ocean? On that score the film does a good job of conveying the sense of wonder of such an adventure, and the challenges and creativity Pi must show if he is going to survive his ordeal.
Unfortunately, that is not all that the story is about. The older Pi (Irrfan Khan) is relating his saga to a reporter (Rafe Spall) and these scenes are intercut throughout the narrative, resulting in the elimination of any suspense. If we know Pi survives to tell his tale then any danger he faces at sea with the tiger is obviously something he has overcome. Worse, we reach a point where we are invited to question whether the adventure actually happened. No spoilers here, but simply by raising the issue, the film undercuts its whole premise.
Readers of the novel by Yann Martel may feel differently, but for those coming into the story anew there’s a sense of being cheated. The movie wants to have it both ways, taking its adventure tale both literally and as an interpretation of a different reality, and it just doesn’t work that way. If we’re not to take it as real, why tell the story? And if it is real, why suggest that it may not be?
There are various arguments for how movie adaptations of novels ought to work, but this critic subscribes to the notion that a movie has to stand on its own. Perhaps the central conceit of “Life of Pi” works on the printed page. It is not appropriate to assume that most viewers of the movie will have read the book. Taken on its own, “Life of Pi” is sometimes lyrical and challenging but, in the end, leaves us wondering why we were being told the story at all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide will be released in January 2013. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.