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Some might visually compare Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to James Cameron’s Avatar, but Lee’s film does something far greater than Cameron’s. Avatar gives way to a shiny new world called Pandora, but Life of Pi makes us take a closer look at the natural world around us, putting an accent or two on the realities of our world with its crisp cinematography, fantastical visual effects, and vibrant production design. It navigates a difficult narrative with what seems like ease and tells a heartstring-tugging story unhampered by melodrama thanks to a powerful leading turn from acting newcomer Suraj Sharma. For all of Avatar’s aesthetic worth, it’s an insult to Lee’s tale to compare the two.
The film might be called Life of Pi, but Pi, the son of a couple who owned a zoo in India, wasn’t always his name. He endures piss jokes for a good chunk of his childhood since he was actually named after a French swimming pool. However, he takes the mathematical concept of pi and makes it his name. From now on, he’s Pi. It’s how he presents himself, which becomes a major theme later in the film.
We understand this name change through the narration of an older Pi (Irrfan Khan, in a masterfully crafted turn) as he gives the details of his life to the Writer (a solid supporting performance from Rafe Spall). We also learn that he fiddled around with religion during his childhood, eventually adopting three religious mindsets into his ideology and teaching a college course on another one. We also come to know of his teenage sweetheart and the heartbreak that ensues when his parents decide that the family should leave India, taking the animals of the zoo with them to Canada. For all of its interesting details, the introductory portion of Life of Pi admittedly lags on occasion, but this background doesn’t come without importance regarding what’s soon to come.
By this time, acting newcomer Suraj Sharma has entered the frame as the adolescent Pi while Khan’s narration dwindles and comes into the equation less often. Sharma anchors Life of Pi with a heartfelt performance: as our title character learns about the world around him and about himself, it’s difficult to think that Sharma didn’t have some kind of revelatory experience while portraying him. It’s a lived-in performance that’s difficult to actually understand because it’s so earnest in everything from gesture to facial expressions to vocal delivery.
A massive storm interferes with Pi’s family’s journey across the Pacific Ocean and takes many lives. Here is where the film’s visual effects kick into high gear, framing the chaos of the storm. But Pi doesn’t lose his life in this debacle, evident because he narrates his own story. However, the hero of the story probably wishes for death shortly after since he’s stranded on a boat with an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker with whom Pi had an unfortunate encounter as a child. Only one of the three animals – take a guess as to which one that is – makes it out alive.
But why does a Bengal tiger get a name? Why not give a name to the Writer or some of the people who were a major part of Pi’s early life? The film tells a story that’s all about perception, and this is the tale of Pi, not someone else. It’s called Life of Pi for a reason.
It’s after the storm that the film tackles its main dilemma: Pi and his animal companion surviving and eventually returning to civilization. Throughout this narrative, the duo endures hunger, thirst, and even more storms. But there’s also beauty along the way. Lush shots from cinematographer Claudio Miranda provide dazzling views of the ocean, particularly when the view is heavily removed from the action at hand. Such visuals also resonate with the heart of the story: we often know more about the world around us when we remove ourselves from it and peer into it from the outside.
Likewise, Life of Pi sees its hero learning more about himself and the world around him during his time away from the civilized world than his time inhabiting it. The film is all about one’s perception of the world and his life, unfolding its story mostly through showing, and with such powerful visual components, what a showing it is.
One might point to the thread of narration carried out by Khan and Spall as a weakness of the film – and to say that Life of Pi tells its story instead of showing it – but the film uses the oft-abused technique to put everything into perspective. We know the resolution only so we pay attention to the story – the life of Pi – and don’t instead hinge our focus on whether Pi lives to tell the tale. We can be grateful that Pi does live and even more gratified that he tells his incredible story in his own way despite the few hiccups along the way.