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‘Life of Pi’ (2012): Because Fictional Biopics Are Better


Directed by: Ang Lee || Produced by: Gil Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark

Screenplay by: David Magee || Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu

Music by: Mychael Danna || Cinematography: Claudio Miranda || Editing by: Tim Squyres || Country: United States, Taiwan, United Kingdom || Language: English, Tamil

Running Time: 127 minutes

The famed Taiwanese director, Ang Lee, has had a diverse career. Since breaking into the Hollywood mainstream with his Westernized kung-fu flick, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, he has tried his hand at bad comic book movies (The Hulk [2003]), gay cowboys (Brokeback Mountain [2005]), and bizarre rock ‘n roll comedy-dramas (Taking Woodstock [2009]). Lee is every bit as bold and eclectic a filmmaker as Danny Boyle, though admittedly a far less consistent one. With his much hyped dramatization of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi novel, Lee took a big risk with the globe-trotting, fantastical source-material and crafted arguably his strongest film yet.

Growing up is tough, and often involves letting go of past relationships, fears, doubts, and beliefs. Sometimes you need to follow your animal instincts to survive.

The best thing about Pi is its pacing. At a little over two hours, the film feels like a full fledged, epic adventure, and yet keeps its narrative rolling at a brisk pace. The main story is told through flashbacks, with considerable time allotted to establishing the characters, the setting, and the emotional turmoil to come. The shipwrecked adventure at sea feels long, but never boring or overindulgent. When the story arc at last comes full circle, the conclusion is satisfying with just the right dosage of bittersweet emotion, as well as a poignant, haunting revelation. David Magee did a brilliant job with the adapted screenplay, and Lee executed an equally brilliant rendition of the story’s realization on film.

Pi’s structure covers the entire childhood and adolescence of its hero, one Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, and draws comparisons to Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), in that both films utilize multiple actors to cover the growth of their main characters from childhood to young adults. The large cast does a great job despite boasting no stars (save for Irrfan Khan), utilizing a plethora of fine child actors, veteran character-actors, and small yet heartfelt guest-appearances. There is no unforgettable lead role like Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), but Pi’s story is far more interesting and ambitious.

The narrative itself could be dubbed an existential drama, having more in common thematically and visually with Synechdoche, New York (2008), The Tree of Life (2011), Birdman (2014), or Fight Club (1999) than most survival-stories. Suraj Sharma, who portrays Pi as a teenager and commands the bulk of the character’s screentime, embarks on a spiritual and emotional journey as much as a physical one as he floats across the Pacific Ocean, his lone companion a Bengal tiger from his family’s shipwrecked zoo. Life of Pi is an odyssey, and whether its odyssey concerns spiritual enlightenment, emotional maturation, or physical endurance is entirely up to the viewer. The film’s ambiguity is perhaps its greatest strength, attributable to both David Magee’s adapted screenplay and Ang Lee’s FX-driven, almost surrealist direction.

Life of Pi is bursting with color, either in the forms of exotic animals, locales, beautiful sunsets at sea, or psychedelic trips through the mind of its protagonist. Though most of the film’s portions at sea were filmed in a studio set (the world’s largest self-generating wave-pool, as a matter of fact), you never sense the blue-screen FX, and these sequences are completely immersive. The outdoor location-photography in the film’s first act, set in India, contrasts well with the film’s dreamlike later acts. These earlier portions feel like a standard coming-of-age drama, and take up a larger percentage of the overall narrative than the movie’s flashy, FX-heavy marketing would have you expect. Life of Pi’s patience, effective pacing, and attention to character development make the film’s ocean adventure-sequences that much more impactful.

The movie’s few faults mostly have to do with the present day-sequences, from which veteran actor Irrfan Khan narrates the flashbacks. Khan is as charismatic and empathetic as always, but the awkward performance and on-the-nose dialogue delivered by Rafe Spall as Yann Martel (the writer of the book on which the film is based) are distracting.

Other problems crop up during the few instances when the story ventures beyond credulity into the truly weird, most notably in the “carnivorous lemur island”-scene. Whether this section appears in the original novel or not is irrelevant. It feels poorly executed, silly, and should not have been included in the film the way it was depicted. Given the “alternative ending” of the greater film, thematic interpretations of this plot-point and plot-device make little sense.

Ang Lee’s Life of Pi tells a great story. I was never bored once during the whole screening and found myself invested in the story’s outcome from start to finish. You can’t ask for a character-driven narrative to do much more than make you emotionally connect with its characters, and Pi does that with incredible cinematic style under Lee’s veteran leadership.

Survival is a state of mind.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Life of Pi is spearheaded by a fantastic screenplay by David Magee and great visuals by director Ang Lee. The film is tightly edited, well paced, and carried by a likable cast.

However… the present-day storyline is often stilted and awkward outside of voiceovers. The man-eating island is a bit much, and robs the story of its ambiguity.


? Who says you can’t follow multiple religions?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


9 thoughts on “‘Life of Pi’ (2012): Because Fictional Biopics Are Better

  1. 8/10 is fair. I thought it was good but it got far too much gooey praise coming its way. I did not agree with it’s award in cinematography and Director given it’s heavy CG. I don’t class good CG as cinematography but that’s just my view. I did like the element of what you choose to believe of Pi’s adventures though, whether real or not.

    Posted by claratsi | March 26, 2013, 5:49 pm
    • Yeah, I’m not sure what I think of CG/CGI overall. I think it can be classed in effective cinematography and certainly in good direction, but given how few people know how to use it effectively (even after 22 years of consistent, heavy usage), it generally just tends to be a cop out rather than a real tool of movie-making, which is a shame.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | March 26, 2013, 6:35 pm
  2. This was a fair and nice review. The visuals were truly beautiful. Moving art. As for the carnivorous lemur island, this does indeed appear in the book. I think it works well in the novel, but I will concede that it did not work well in the film (especially for those who did not read the book). Then again, if you view the ‘weirdness’ of the island as being a function of how long Pi was stranded on the Pacific, then it becomes a manifestation of his wavering sanity. Just a thought…

    Posted by Kye Jay | March 26, 2013, 8:01 pm
    • That’s the best explanation for that part that I’ve heard yet, and it’s a good one. However, I still think that the worst part about the island section is that it reveals that the rather fantastical sea journey that we’ve been witnessing and becoming invested in is really just fictional. It robs the story of its ambiguity and makes the whole story seem less deep and nuanced, because we know it’s all been in Pi’s head before the haunting revelation is even told. With that said, I have not read the book, so maybe it was implemented much better in that format. Here in the film version though, I still find it unnecessary.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | March 26, 2013, 11:01 pm
  3. What an excellent way to write a review!
    This has been a real inspiration to me over the past weeks and I hope I’ll be seeing more of this amazing work 🙂

    Check out my version! – http://moviereviewsdirect.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/life-of-pi-the-extraordinary-adventure/

    All the best,

    Posted by arena23 | April 12, 2013, 6:09 am


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