Full disclosure: I haven't read the best-selling, Oprah-approved Yann Martel novel that serves as the basis for Ang Lee's new 3D spectacle, Life of Pi, which tells the tale of a shipwrecked boy's journey across the Pacific Ocean on a small lifeboat he shares with an honest-to-God tiger. Now, I don't say this to suggest that you need to rush out and pick up the book in advance of seeing the film. This is just to establish why I was completely unprepared for the ending of the movie, which contains a metaphor-rich twist that took what had been up to that point a visually lovely, but somewhat dramatically inert fantasy-tinged aquatic adventure and made it something far more complex and interesting. Because the final 15 minutes so completely altered my view of what had come before, I can't in good faith discuss my reaction to Life of Pi without mentioning some crucial details about the conclusion. So if you, like me, haven't read the book and want to remain in blissful ignorance, here's a Spoiler Warning.
Before sailing into spoiler territory, let's start on safer ground with the basic thrust of Martel's story, which has been adapted for the screen by David Magee, the scribe behind Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Framed as an extended conversation between a frustrated novelist (Rafe Spall) and the title character (played by Irrfan Kahn in the framing device) -- who shortened his original name Piscine (French for "swimming pool") to avoid the taunts of his schoolmates -- the narrative begins with Pi's early years in Pondicherry, India, where his father ran the local zoo. It was here that young Pi (played as a child by Avush Tandon) first learned to swim, fell in love with animals and developed a fascination with faith (brought up in a Hindu household, he comes to embrace Christianity, Islam and many other religions as well), all things that will conveniently come to serve him well in the unexpected adventure that lurks in his future. A few years later, with India's economy going through a rough patch, his family sells their business and boards a boat en route to Canada along with some of the remaining animals, which they intend to sell off to North American zoos for seed money. Midway through the crossing, however, the boat is caught in a terrible storm and capsizes, claiming the lives of all the souls on board save for Pi (now played by Suraj Sharma), who escapes in a lifeboat that he shares with a quartet of animals: a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and, most importantly, a tiger who goes by the odd name, Richard Parker.
Naturally, this isn't the most reliable crew of critters to have aboard such a confined space and it isn't long before the zebra, hyena and orangutan are gone and its just Pi and Richard Parker alone on the open water. In the Disney version of the story, this is the point where the tiger manages to forget his animal instincts and becomes fast friends with the boy, teaching him about the value of friendship in between song-and-dance numbers. But this isn't a Disney cartoon, which means that a starving Richard Parker would gladly devour Pi if given half a chance. In order to keep all his limbs intact, the kid is forced to rig up a makeshift life raft and sail along next to the boat, living off dried biscuits, canned food and whatever fish happen to wander into his nets from the sea. He gets his water from the sky and occupies his mind by scribbling his thoughts down in the margins of a "How to Survive at Sea" manual, as well as trying various methods of taming his fellow castaway, few of which prove successful. Pi's odyssey ends up lasting well over 200 days, during which he endures storms, intense isolation and near-starvation. By the time he washes up off the coast of Mexico, both his mind and body have almost wasted away. Small wonder that nobody believes his wild tale of spending almost a year at sea with only a tiger for company.
Life of Pi represents Lee's return to the realm of big-budget spectacle-driven filmmaking for the first time since his much-maligned version of Hulk back in 2003. Even though that film doesn't entirely deserve all the scorn that's regularly heaped upon it, this one proves a much better fit for Lee's specific skill set. The lush imagery and richly-detailed landscapes seen throughout Life of Pi bring to mind his finest film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and his talent for working with actors is evident in the strong performance he coaxes out Sharma, making his feature film debut in a challenging, intensely physical role, one that requires him to spend much of the movie acting alone opposite the elements and a computer-generated big cat co-star. What Crouching Tiger had that Life of Pi lacks, unfortunately, is a rich dramatic narrative that's constantly deepening our understanding of the characters and the world they inhabit. Pi's is a pure survival story, but because we already know from the framing device that he lives through his ordeal, there's a certain lack of suspense involved to every challenge that he confronts. We're invited to marvel at his journey and the extraordinary sights he sees (among the movie's many memorable images is a nighttime shot of Pi on his raft, the starry heavens spread out over his head and a sea filled with glowing blue-green fish beneath his feet), but we're never fully part of it or him; we're observers rather than traveling companions.
But then that ending comes along and upends what we thought we knew about Pi's journey. When two insurance agents representing the company that owned the capsized boat reject his version of events, a still-recuperating Pi offers a very different story. In this tale, he and three other people survived the sinking: his mother, the ship's cook and an injured sailor. Early on in the voyage, the cook went mad, killing the sailor and feasting on his carcass, before eventually turning on Pi's mother. Eventually, Pi mortally wounds the cook and is then left utterly alone for the remainder of the voyage. Suddenly, the details of his other story snap into focus: those three animals represented the three human survivors, while Pi and Richard Parker were one and the same all along. The whole thing is likely just a work of fiction the boy spun to try and come to terms with the horrific ordeal he experienced -- in essence, it's his very own parable. (In a wise choice, Lee resists the urge to cut back to the boat during this story, instead keeping the camera fixed on Sharma's increasingly distraught face.) This key bit of knowledge provides the movie with what it was otherwise lacking, namely a human dimension. It actually made me want to watch the film again right away -- this time armed with that knowledge in advance -- to spot the ways in which Lee crafted the movie so that both versions of Pi's story can co-exist alongside each other.
Beyond its impact on the narrative, this revelation is designed to lend the film additional spiritual resonance, with Pi using the vast discrepancy between the two stories as an example for why he believes so strongly in God: would you rather hear a story about human weakness and cruelty or one in which a boy and a tiger survive a seemingly impossible ocean crossing? Personally, I can't say that Life of Pi converted me to its hero's way of thinking. If anything, the story's brand of spirituality struck me as profoundly dubious and reductive in the way it suggests that we'd all be a lot happier and more at peace if we willingly chose fantasy over reality once in a while. (Belief in a higher power shouldn't require blindness, although, to be fair, the movie cannily avoids stating that point of view in so many words.) But if I didn't come out of Life of Pi believing in God, I did leave the theater believing in the power of a great ending to improve an otherwise average movie.
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