You know those shipwreck movies where the castaways end up on some island and they have to start from scratch finding food, shelter, and, let’s say in the case of “Lord of the Flies,” figure out how to govern themselves? Well, “Life of Pi” makes those movies look like a vacation in Bora Bora. Ang Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s best selling novel (M. Knight Shyamalan was, at one point, attached to write and direct the project) is one of the most frightening and gorgeous-looking films to come out this year, yet there is also a lingering feeling that some of it was just too unfilmable from the start.
“Pi” begins in Canada with Pi (Irfann Khan) recounting his tale of survival to an eager wannabe writer (played by Rafe Spall). Pi tells of how his family ran a zoo in India, as well as the humorous anecdote of how he came to be called Pi and how he was motivated to find God by worshiping as a Christian, Muslim, and Hindu despite his father’s urging to dedicate his life to more reasonable things, such as science. This preoccupation with the soul extends to him wondering what lies between the eyes of the zoo’s tiger, named Richard Parker.
Suraj Sharma plays Pi as a teenager, which is right around the time that his family decides they must move to Canada, and this is also around the time the movie really becomes a thrill ride. The boat they travel on is caught up in a terrible storm, causing it to take on water and Pi to abandon ship into a life boat, the catch being that the family’s zoo animals have escaped and their hyena, zebra, orangutan, and Richard Parker have all managed to stowaway on Pi’s life boat.
It’s a volatile situation to say the least and shooting everything in 3-D only magnifies the dread, the waves and animatronic creations make you feel like your on the boat along with them. Lee makes excellent use of the limited space the movie takes place in, while the battle for supremacy of the boat remains both nerve-wracking and beautifully shot. The sun or stars in the sky reflecting on the water and, later, a water-bound hallucination are just two of the ways Lee uses imagery to exquisite effect.
But after a while, just like fear is the motivating factor for Pi to stay on his toes and try to survive, it’s also usually the only motivating factor for the audience to stay involved. The movie gets into tricky territory when attempting to prove not only Pi’s faith but also Richard Parker’s soul, and voice-over narration is the best the film can do in both of those areas. You end up wishing it could have had more heart, but at the same time it still manages to hold our interest by being a visual and suspenseful marvel.
[Andrew Garfield was considered for the role but Tobey Maguire was cast. Though he filmed his scenes, Maguire was later replaced by Rafe Spall because the director thought that Maguire was too famous for such a small role and it would have been distracting – ed; courtesy of imdb.com]
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