Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012)

“He said you had a story that would make me believe in God”


Published in 2001, Yann Martel’s novel managed to grab the attention of the world. A personal story about an Indian boy stranded on a boat with a Bengal tiger was hardly the story to win the world over. But it did, truly a book that fascinates you from the beginning. From the perspective of Piscine – aka Pi – he explains why Zoo’s can be stunning, beautiful places for animals. We are convinced of his multiple faiths – as Pi is a Hindu, Christian and Muslim and, soon enough, we are stranded on the boat with a Tiger, Orangutan, a Hyena and a Zebra – and Pi. How could such an extraordinary situation be depicted in a film?

Passing it On

My own interest in the story is due to my love of the films by M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan himself, akin to Pi, was born in Pondicherry and in 2003, Shyamalan was hired by Fox to direct and write the film after the film The Village. Instead, Shyamalan directed The Lady in the Water, and passing through the hands of Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the film eventually landed on the lap of Ang Lee, who managed to work with scriptwriter David Magee to begin production. The film openly tackles faith and spirituality – and though this was an attribute Shyamalan would’ve been ideal for, Lee’s own approach rooted the story in themes revolving around family and story-telling – two themes which occur often in Lee’s films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm.

The film rests on the shoulders of the special effects – and they truly are stunning. The opening credits alone maximize the 3D as animals reach out of frame and scuttle across the shot. Even the main-act as Pi (Suraj Sharma) remains on the boat, Lee manages to experiment with a wide variety of techniques ensuring that you are never left uninterested. Fish fly in and out-of-frame as Lee adjusts the aspect ratio; when the ship crashes in the first act, we see Zebra and animals jumping and swimming on deck in the midst of rough rain and wind. Crucially, you believe it. There is no unsatisfying sequence – even as the colours become vivid and almost-animated in their depiction, it doesn’t jar or seem out-of-place. The Adventures of Tintin was often seen as an example of a style of film-making that didn’t know whether it was real or animated – Life of Pi does not have this problem, clearly supposed to be dreamlike, it never rings false.

Framing and Family

Book-ended by an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall) discussing the events with an older Pi (Irrfan Khan), the story is told in flashback akin to Oscar-winning films such as Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Titanic. In that regard, though I think it will be nominated, I don’t think it truly has the capability of a Best Picture winner; it doesn’t have the same scale as Slumdog Millionaire, despite its cultural prowess (it even includes a romantic sub-plot which feels forced). This framing of the story gives the film a sense of authority and truth – despite the strangeness of the core-story. Spall and Khan are truly engaging, holding the film together as we – like the writer – are keen to hear how this story will help us “believe in God”. Spirituality and God is discussed from the start of the film; we are well aware of the religious sentiments to the story, but the film still manages to keep your faith intact. Indeed, your enjoyment of the film will not be altered depending on your chosen faith.

This is a film that is for the family to watch. A film that, after the viewing, you can discuss, argue and debate long into the night. The idea that children and adults alike will start conversations about faith, truth and story-telling is truly the films crowning achievement. It is accessible – and yet ends in a way that forces you, as a viewer, to reconsider where you stand, and your judgement of others. Life of Pi could have been a film that was aimed at adults exclusively – indeed, the subject matter tackles a child that loses his entire family in one tragic disaster. The film could have been rooted in horror and danger; a tiger on a boat is hardly going to be seen as a cuddly teddy bear. The end of the film could be revealed in a manner that visually shocks you to the core – but Lee did not want to make that film (Maybe M. Night. Shyamalan did?) – he wanted to make a film that tackled some of the most important human-issues of faith and truth, and he made it accessible to all.

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