Based on Yann Martel’s best selling novel, Life of Pi tells the story of a young Indian boy Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma), who becomes stranded at sea after the ship on which he is traveling to Canada capsizes in the Pacific Ocean. Aside from the hardship of a difficult rescue on a vast body of water, there is another passenger aboard his lifeboat, an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. These two keep each other on their toes and paws as they fight for survival. Taking way too much time to establish the main focus, the narrative is told from the perspective of an Older Pi (Irrfan Khan) talking to a writer (Rafe Spall) cutting back and forth. David Magee’s script also stews in schmaltz as both man and beast bond over a shared experience and the twists and metaphors along the way could turn off some audience members. Although Magee’s screenplay is true to the source material it’s one of the weaker aspects of the film but not the weakest.
Four different actors play Pi at different ages. First we are introduced to Irrfan Khan’s grown up Pi living in Montreal. While Khan is a terrific and underused actor, one should check out Mira Nair’s The Namesake for further proof. Sadly he’s just the framework telling the tale that changes his life. Next Ayush Tandon and Gautam Belur take over as his youthful version living in India with family. This is where most of his character development occurs, learning about his family running a zoo, and Pi’s keen interest in religion. One scene plays like gangbusters as Pi creates his new identity in every class to avoid the bullying. Hey it’s not easy being named after a French swimming pool. Finally there’s Suraj Sharma’s Pi; a young man lost on the ocean. The newcomer is likable but this does take time. This Pi comes into his own during the training of Richard Parker and taking charge of the screen. Other than Pi the only other character that has any real development is the tiger himself. Ferocious and hungry, Richard Parker takes the small vessel both survivors need for survival, but as the movie plays out Parker diminishes in intimidation to almost forgettable. Scattered throughout are other characters like Gerard Depardieu’s racist Frenchman, Andrea Di Stefano’s priest, and Pi’s parents (Tabu and Adil Hussain); none making much of an impression.
Out of desperation, Pi manages to strike up a conversation with his only companion; the wild beast roaring back in response. Voice-overs are also a heavily used writing tool with Khan and Sharma interchanging in the role interrupting the flow.
Many directors interested in this project called it impossible to shoot but versatile filmmaker Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm) stepped up making the decision to shoot in 3D saying that the story needed to be told in another dimension. It is a beautiful looking movie but largely due to the colour pallet. Compared to Hugo and Prometheus the director’s first foray into the new technology doesn’t come close to enticing a savvy moviegoer into the interesting Life of Pi. You could probably see it on a 2D digital projection and still enjoy each frame. Its pacing is clunky taking too much time hitting at the mark. A few will discover the choice of some composted shots jarring like a face slowly fading out of the shot, layering into the next. Last gripe is Lee’s call to re-shoot Tobey Maguire’s scenes replacing him with Rafe Spall. Apparently Maguire is too famous for the part. But what about Depardieu’s infamous nose popping up for just a few minutes?
What the film does have in spades is Claudio Miranda’s gorgeous cinematography. One of the many memorable images that stuck with this viewer is an island filled with meerkats fixated on their new visitor. Additionally the shot of the ship sinking during the storm is striking; a combination of well-integrated effects and artist vision merging together. Some scenes with the CGI tiger look a bit iffy but only because the animal is used throughout. Wouldn’t it be nice to see Miranda shoot a nature doc employing his skills to enhance the beauty, even if a Proboscis monkey (featured in the opening credits).