Life of Pi

If you haven’t read the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you need to be aware of a few things before seeing the movie.  Although the previews make it seem like an adventure movie about a teenage boy stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, there’s a great deal more to it than that.   However, I can’t possibly tell you very much because it’s one of those movies that contains the most significant spoiler I’ve ever seen or read.  In fact, even telling you there’s a significant spoiler might do a little damage all on its own, so forgive me if I’m too cryptic.  Anyone who reviews this film “correctly” will probably have written their shortest review ever because there’s just too much to not give away.  Understand?  Didn’t think so.

Picine – pronounced like “PissIng” – Patel is an excellent student with an unfortunate name taken from one of the most beautiful swimming pools in France.  He is such a subject of ridicule that he changes his name to just Pi, like the math symbol for 3.14.  It didn’t hurt that he’s also a brilliant math student.  His father runs a public-supported zoo in India, but attendance and other budgetary issues have forced the zoo to close.  Although the family doesn’t own the zoo, they do own the animals and are free to sell them.  They book passage on a Japanese freighter to Canada where a buyer has been secured, and the money will allow the Patel family to start anew in the Great White North.

The drama that causes teenage Pi (Shuraj Sharma) to end up in a lifeboat with not just a tiger but also an orangutan, hyena, and zebra is too great to spoil, not just in terms of the plot but also the visuals.  There is no doubt that Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) will win an Oscar for cinematography.  The colors alone are brilliant, even without the ironic beauty of filming a sinking ship.  We’re talking about a hundred people sealed in a death trap beneath the sea, yet my thoughts were how the use of light and color were breathtaking.  Go figure.

What comes next is 227 days at sea while battling a tiger, the sun, a storm, the sea, sharks, hunger, dehydration, and one’s own mental anguish.  What comes before is about a half hour of interspersed interview and flashback moments as a writer pays a visit to Pi on the advice of a relative who claimed that Pi had the most amazing story to tell, a story that will “make you believe in God.”  This of course lets us know that Pi survives the 227 days, but that doesn’t mean he survived in one piece.  During his interview with the writer, the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) reveals some very funny and clever touches and subtleties needed for certain moments of the 227 days to make sense, such as why the tiger’s name is Richard Parker instead of some kind of jungle cat name.  There is a great psychological price paid by Pi, but few would argue that there is no price too great when it comes to living and dying.  That price is what the spoiler is all about and why it needs to be protected.  It’s one of those stories that on the surface is a fabulous story.  However, once – well – once something “extra” is revealed, it turns the story in a very different direction, but a direction that is no less great.

I did not see the 3D version, but there are several scenes that made me wish I had.  There’s an evening scene with Pi’s boat adrift.  He’s suddenly surrounded by some amazingly iridescent creatures, including a great whale.  It’s easy to see that CGI was used for the tiger on the lifeboat because it’s just not possible to get a tiger to behave such a way on the ocean, but the involuntary squirming and twitching you’ll do will allow you to quickly forget about whether or not the tiger is real.  Normally, I would steer anyone away from seeing a film in 3D because you’re basically wearing sunglasses, which automatically darkens the film and dims the color and light.  However, I suspect that the squirming and twitching will be even greater seeing Life of Pi in 3D, which just might make up for the negatives.

Most people who both read a book and see the film version will do it in that order:  book then film.  For this story I would recommend that same sequence.  However, if you have not already read the book, and if you aren’t going to be able to do so before the film is gone from wide release, then please get to the theater now.  This is one of those films that will definitely lose a little something should you have no choice but to see it at home instead of a theater.

A final note about that first half hour.  The woman next to me in the theater had not read the book, and I wasn’t surprised that her eyes were getting heavy about 15 minutes in because the film definitely got off to a slow start.  However, once the boat ran into the storm, she eyes were just as glued to the screen as mine were.  It’s a film that critics might love more than audiences, but don’t let anyone talk you out of seeing it.  Go see it for yourself so you can genuinely take part in the conversations leading up to Oscar night in this coming February.

60 thoughts on “Life of Pi

  1. Hi Rich,

    Read Life of Pi back when it came out. I’m happy to see Jann Martel make the big screen with his novel.

    Your review was good and will surely pique the interest of all who read it. I hope, like you, that people read the book first because it will make watching the movie all the sweeter for what they will know.



    P.S. You are one of the writers I enjoy reading. My very best compliment. Tuck it away somewhere for a rainy day.

  2. I saw it today in 3D, which did not add much for me. I found it visually stunning. Not a fan of the ending, which I thought made most of the movie dishonest. Can’t explain that without spoilers.

    • i know exactly what you mean, and i was greatly worried that audiences would dislike that and thus dislike the movie. i think reading the book and enjoying it as much as i did set me up to accept the ending more easily.

  3. Loved the movie, and Bernie’s and my review will be in the Piker Press on Monday. I can’t get the movie out of my heart, and because of personal experiences, did not find the end of the movie to make it dishonest at all. What you cannot believe others have experienced always seems dishonest.

    • it’s a 50/50 thing with the ending. i can totally understand those who don’t like it, even though i was okay with it. fortunately, each of us gets to decide – except for the producers. they’re at the mercy of the audience as a whole.

  4. A great review. I loved the book when I read it last year and I’m looking forward to seeing how the film does. Thank you for being ‘careful’ with your wording throughout. Well done!

  5. Hi Rich,
    Another well-written review. You could easily write reviews for newspapers or magazines. You’re just as good, maybe better, than the guy at the Little Rock paper, and he’s actually pretty good. I couldn’t make it through the book. I have a problem with the premise, having a tiger in a lifeboat. I think it’s pretty obvious how that would work out. But there are two ways to view it, my way, which is that just couldn’t happen, or to see it as a very innovative and interesting premise, which is how many must see it. I’m just a stickler for reality, which elimates whole genres like fantasy and sci fi. But you made me want to see this movie just for the visual experience. By the way, I’m still trying to get to Disconnected. I was almost there, and then my son-in-law loaned me bios of Gregg Allman and Keith Richards, but I will get to it sometime soon. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving, especially as it’s your favorite. Ron

    • thanks for the kind words and thoughts. as for disconnected, i need to add a chapter or two to improve the ending. if you start it, let me know so i work on that.

      as for pi, if you think you won’t see it, let me know because i’d be happy to discuss your questions but not of course if you’re going to see it.

      as for reviews, i have a friend who is trying to start a movie/music/tv/media review website, and he asked me to write reviews for him. i’ll give you the website when it’s up and running.

  6. Very good review. Makes me want to see the movie even more. I will. Haven’t read the book. Haven’t read much lately. Seems the more I write, the less time I have to read. Which is not good. Love to read. You said there are sharks in the movie. I’m petrified of them. Will I scream like a girl and freak out at that part of the movie? 😉

    • I’m glad my thoughts came across as positive because it is a remarkable visual experience, and a remarkable story as well. I don’t always recommend reading a book before seeing the movie version, but I do with this story because of this spiritual complexities involved. Thanks for reading.

      • I would not be surprised if that was something the studio insisted upon that was added in later. Just had lunch with a friend who loved the 3d version. Maybe she likes having those things thrown at her. Either way, she read the book when it was first released and was greatly looking forward to the movie. The movie did not disappoint her, and I guess that’s what matters for each of us.

      • I still liked the 3D version, I was just surprised at some of the inclusions.

        That is hugely important, I’m glad that the adaptation seems to be a proper one. I’m really looking forward to it.

  7. I do not know if I will ever see a movie again that will top “Life of Pi” and I know I have not seen one before that is as good or as full of meaning. I will read the book at some time in the future but now I will reflect and dream on the images and messages of this incredible experience.

  8. A great spoiler free review, making me want to see the film even more than the short trailer I watched in the cinema the other day. Visually stunning. Must read the book afterwards to compare. Thanks for sharing your insightful review with us.

      • Yes, interesting subject, would make a great blog post. Often the movies don’t live up to our expectations, when we’ve read the book first – after all, it is somebody else’s vision of what our mind’s eye imagined when we read the story.

        On rare occasions I found a movie better than the book, but mostly find it’s fascinating to see how other people (in this case the director and actors) interpret a much loved book.

  9. I saw the movie when I was about 2/3 of my way through the book. I loved both. This is now one of my all time favorite stories. The layers upon layers of meaning in this story is overwhelming. It’s beautiful. The movie also didn’t disappoint.

    • 1 of the interesting aspects of the film is the line “it is a story that will make you believe in God.” I have been involved in extensive debates that actually suggest the opposite. It is a story that will make you doubt the existence of God. I’m curious as to which side of the debate you would be on.

      • I don’t believe it will make you believe in God either. I don’t think that’s possible.
        What I have never understood is why people put so much concrete belief in the Bible. In my limited opinion (I’ve never read it) I think the Bible is a work of fiction meant to convey messages. But the taking it to heart, I’ll never understand. Life of Pi helped me understand people’s need to believe in that story or like Martel was saying, the need for a “better story” to color life with. We are born, we live, we die and the storytelling adds that color. Even if the events seem unbelievable. The stories help people cope with awful events. I understand that now.
        The book was so damn beautiful and that’s coming from a non-believer like me. I still don’t believe in God though. But I do believe in the power of storytelling now.

      • ” The stories help people cope with awful events.” That sums it up in one sentence. And to me, that’s what Pi is all about.

  10. This book is a masterpiece. I think it will be he for the ages. Ad your right it is a very easy book to ruin for someone. I have never been so blindsided by a book and I have read hundreds. You details will help anyone who has not read the book. I have not seen the movie but will go soon.

  11. I hadn’t read the book. I saw the movie and when it got over I was like “What the hell?!!”… I guess I am one of those very few (I know only one other, who went with me), who didn’t quite like the movie.
    Or maybe I was not in the right frame of mind.
    I really like Irrfan Khan’s acting, so I liked the parts that had him.
    Otherwise, it seemed like an Animal Planet documentary to me. (Sorry if you want to shake me or something)

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