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Guest Movie Review: Life of Pi

By (December 7, 2012) No Comment

Film adaptations tend to get a bad rep. They are often belittled by people who make comments like “Hollywood has no original ideas; they have to steal them.” And there’s some truth to it; more and more, production companies seem content capitalizing on sequels, gimmicks, remakes and even vague connections (remember when ads linked Battleship to the blockbuster Transformers franchise?) in an effort to guarantee success. Another avenue of tapping into pre-existing fandoms was the book-to-film adaptation. It happens more often than you perhaps realize; at the same time you’re reading your favorite new book, some producer in Hollywood is reading the same thing and thinking it’d make a GREAT movie. So they buy the rights, hire a screenwriter to adapt a 300-page book into just under two hours of entertainment, and grab whatever director isn’t doing anything else. And for the most part, they’re successful. Though there will always be some outliers, the genre tends to attract large audiences lulled by familiarity. Just look at the Harry Potter series; even though hardcore fans lamented the sheer amount of events and info lost in translating the bestselling books to the big screen, they still shelled out billions for the chance to watch it.

But book adaptations are not always the evil, unimaginative, money-grubbing schlock people might make them out to be. For proof, take a look at the top of the American Film Institute’s list of best movies and you’ll see a large number of literary adaptations: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Maltese Falcon, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind and The Godfather are all excellent, classic films that were originally popular fiction. Like anything else in movies, what matters in the end is who’s in front of the camera and who’s behind it.

That’s not to say that Life of Pi belongs anywhere near this lofty company, just that you shouldn’t hold its borrowed reputation against it. The production – in development since 2003 – saw a number of directors attached until Ang Lee was given the job in 2009. For Lee, it would be his first feature film since 2007’s Lust, Caution, his most ambitious piece since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The man is no stranger to deep emotional dramas and beautiful cinematography, but it’s the visual and 3D elements of Pi which raise the most questions, since like most acclaimed filmmakers, Lee’s had little experience with them (and not all that experience was positive – see 2003’s fanboy-reviled Hulk).

As in Yann Martel’s novel of the same name, the film follows a chunk of the life of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (played by many actors but mainly newcomer Suraj Sharma), a youth who, after becoming the sole survivor of a sunken ship, finds himself trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger for 227 days. In that time, he must find a way to survive not only Mother Nature – who in the middle of nowhere has a billion ways to kill you – but the tiger as well, a zoo cat named Richard Parker. Pi also seeks the truth about God, putting his faith in the unknown as he struggles to survive the ocean’s harsh moods.

What’s surprising is that the central story is not really about a young boy trapped on a raft with a tiger, but that boy’s search for God in any form. Though Pi is raised Hindu, he is fascinated by other religions at a young age and follows the teachings of both Christianity and Islam, as well as his birth faith (as an older man played by Irfan Khan, he refers to himself as Catholic Hindu, and that he can “feel guilty” to many gods as a result). Even from a young age Pi could see that the world was a harsh place, and wondered as to God’s – any gods’ – plan for “normal” people like him. The religious subtext never feels preachy, but while Lee excels in what could have been seen as an overly-long setup for the main event, he occasionally breaks momentum on the question, leaving it completely alone for far too long from a narrative standpoint. When he touches back upon it again, it’s often a jarring re-entry, complete with unfortunately necessary voiceovers from the older Pi so that we understand his state of mind.

That’s Life of Pi’s weakness: the constant need of voiceovers. Though Khan does a decent job, the fact that we seemingly cannot go more than a minute without interjecting his voice into a scene is a bit deflating, especially since it keeps the extremely talented Sharma from completely breaking out. Potentially the biggest Indian import since Dev Patel, Sharma quickly finds his pace in what really is a one-man show, despite some talented secondary acting from Gerard Depardieu (remember him?), Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Bollywood actress Tabu.  Unlike many international actors, Sharma doesn’t win the audience over with a quick wit or easy charm, but by making you believe that he is really there on that boat, suffering alongside that tiger. Some people mistakenly believe he will be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; he won’t, but if he can put in a few more performances like this (remember, Patel’s star dimmed a bit after Slumdog Millionaire), maybe he’ll be ready in a few years.

As for his feline co-star, Lee’s crew does an outstanding job when creating and animating the tiger Richard Parker, whose journey is just as important to chronicle as that of Pi himself. While some of the early scenes involve the use of the real deal, it is Lee’s seamless intercutting of a digital Parker with his actor that becomes his greatest achievement here. Lee resists the idea of anthropomorphizing his creature too much, allowing Richard Parker to be the animal he is supposed to be. The result is a believable – if somewhat hackneyed – human/animal connection that helps define the film’s second and third acts. If only every effect they used had been as effective as one Bengal tiger; unfortunately, at least nine different SFX companies were involved in the production, and not everything on the screen is quite as spectacular as that one creature. The storm, which sets up the latter half of the film, is just about the only other major special effect that inspires awe in the audience, while the rest are just – at best – pretty pictures that lead to nothing of interest.

When it works, Life of Pi can be a fascinating film, one full of splendor and allegory and metaphor, riding high on a strong two thirds of a great story and thanks to both great acting and a few amazing special effects moments. It’s disappointing that the final act (in fact the final ten minutes) is such a downer, causing you to question whether you’ve been subjected to some cruel joke. Perhaps it is a side effect of its own ambition – one character claims that the story will “Make you believe in God” – but I doubt the faith-challenged will be exiting theaters with a whole new lease on life. Still, Pi tells its story very well. Lee’s direction is likely the only reason Pi was as good as it turned out; this may not be one of the best adapted tales of all time, but you’ll certainly give it a passing grade, as did I.

John C. Anderson is a freelance writer, movie enthusiast and Foursquare Mayor living in Boston. His film reviews can usually be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson. You know, just in case you’re interested.