Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Movie – Life of Pi (2012)

Life of Pi is the first Best Picture nominee I’ve seen that I felt was a step above the others, although I’ve still got five more to see.  It wasn’t until the last fifteen minutes of the film that I felt that way, though.  Up until then it had been a decently entertaining movie, but then it took a step up.  I will be discussing this ending in this post, inside a piece clearly marked for spoilers so that you can read the rest of the review and skip over that section if you have not seen the film. 

An author (Rafe Spall) looking for inspiration for his next novel meets with a man simply known as Pi (Irrfan Khan – best known to American audiences as the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire).  The author had met Pi’s uncle and had been told Pi had a story to tell that would be worth his time.  The author starts out asking Pi about his name.  Pi quickly reveals himself to be a first rate teller of tall tales.  He says his uncle had such a big chest and thin legs because when he was born the doctor spun him around by his legs to get rid of fluid in his lungs.  When the uncle grew up he would swim in every single swimming pool he ever came to.  He raved to Pi’s parents that the absolute best swimming pool in the world was the Piscine Molitor in France.  Because of this Pi was named Piscine Molitor Patel when he was born.

The author points out that Pi still hasn’t told him why “Pi” and not “Piscine”.  We then get another tall tale about how Pi got fed up with the other kids calling him “pissing” so he memorizes and writes out the number pi to thousands of digits in the classroom and from that point on he was known as Pi.

The author suppresses some amusement and finally coaxes Pi into telling him the big story the uncle alluded to.  Pi does.  He was on his way to Canada with his parents, brother, and a number of zoo animals the family owned.  The freighter they were on sank and Pi (now played as a young man by newcomer Suraj Sharma) managed to get aboard a life boat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, rat, and oh yeah, a fully grown Bengal tiger.  The tiger, whose name is Richard Parker (another tall tale reveals why), makes quick work of the other animals, but Pi manages to always stay just out of reach.  He builds a small raft from materials in the boat and stays connected to the boat by a rope.

As the story goes on and the tale gets more elaborate (humpback whales, flying fish attacks, and even a carnivorous island) so too does the life raft get more and more elaborate.  Eventually it is the same size as the boat and has its own sail on it.  It’s a tale, so don’t worry about such details as where all the raft materials came from, where the bones and blood of the eaten animals went to, and why there’s no tiger poop in the boat.

Eventually Pi comes to an understanding with Richard Parker and two live an uneasy co-existence, to the point where when Pi leaves the carnivorous island Richard Parker rejoins him in the lifeboat.  Months pass.  Obviously Pi survives because he is the one telling this tale, but the tale itself holds some important clues as to how he survived.  This is where the movie really got good.


When the author questions the truthfulness of such an outrageous tale Pi tells him the insurance people investigating the freighter’s sinking also didn’t believe him.  They demanded he tell the truth so they could put it in their report.  The tale that Pi now tells (which I won’t spoil) is one that you can quickly tell is the real truth.  We see that each of the animals and their actions were metaphors for what really happened and that Pi has made up the more glorious story to try to bury the hurt and anguish over what really happened.

When he gets done with the real story he asks the investigators which of the two stories they prefer.  He then asks the author the same thing and hands him the investigator’s official report…which contains Pi’s wilder story of survival with a tiger.  When the author leaves he is obviously going to go with the wilder story, too, not the messy real one.

Many people have lauded this film for being a positive allegory on faith, but I think those people are the ones that believe the tiger story is the real one.  The whole point, and Pi’s father made this early in the movie, is that rationality is what will save you.  While it is often harder to be rational, and while the Fantastic has much appeal, you should not take the easy route and just believe the nice things.  This is the real allegory about faith; that it is based on people wanting to believe the more fantastic, nicer things rather than facing life rationally, which means having to accept that sometimes bad things just happen for no reason.


Life of Pi has a lot of cgi in it, if that sort of thing bothers you.  There are a few mini-Tree of Life scenes (much, much shorter than in that movie) and the animals are almost always cgi.  The actor was never in a scene with a real tiger, for instance.  Most of what we see of it in the film is actually cgi.  They did a pretty good job with it.

There is also some unexpected humor in the film.  When Pi is told by his parents that the family is moving to Canada Pi wants to stay in India.  He can’t believe they will be leaving.  When the father tries to cheer him up by telling him they will be like Columbus going to the new world, Pi responds, “But Columbus was trying to get to India!”

Also watch for a quick cameo by Gerard Depardieu as the cook onboard the freighter, not being pleased when asked to provide vegetarian meals.

Despite the fact that a tiger is a prominent part of this movie there is nothing graphic shown on the screen.  In fact, the film only has a PG rating, and that just because there are a few scenes that might be scary.  Kids may or may not be bored by the hour or so spent in the lifeboat, though.  The film as a whole is two hours long.  Unless something I have mentioned would bother you a lot, I highly recommend you see this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Good review Chip. It's one of the more impressive features of 3-D I have ever seen, but the story just doesn't have that genuine feeling or punch that the visuals do.

    1. I did not see it in 3D so thanks for sharing your experience with that.

  2. Glad you found one you really enjoyed. The story feels like an old-fashioned classic like Robinson Crusoe, which appealed to me. A visually groundbreaking film, especially CGI tiger, I agree. I like your interpretation of having to accept that bad things happen for no reason.

    1. Thanks. It actually surprised me when I read the IMDB boards and discovered how many people had completely missed the father's message and the fact that the tiger tale was made up.