A young man’s life is irrevocably changed when the ship carrying his family – and hundreds of animals – to a new life is sunk. Pi is shipwrecked, but makes a strange connection with another survivor; a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Yann Martel’s book, on which Life of Pi is based, has been described as “an elegant proof of God” by none other than US President Barack Obama, and it is almost universally recognised as discussing religion, faith and humanity.
The real star of the film is not the Bengal tiger Richard Parker – although he is stunningly realised through CGI – it is newcomer Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi through his teenage years. This is the time when Pi spends 227 days adrift in a lifeboat, and this is the centre of the film. Sharma plays Pi as a character that the audience can relate to and, while he thanks God and surrenders to his will, the religious tones are justified as this is a character in crisis. Sharma also holds his own against a (CGI) tiger, the beauty of which could have easily stolen the show from the young actor. Suraj Sharma is a revelation and without his heartbreaking performance at the centre of the film, it surely would not have worked. Irfan Khan as adult Pi is also fantastic; his voiceover holds the film together and he skilfully balances wonder and sorrow as he tells the Writer (Rafe Spall) his fantastic tale.
And what a tale it is. Just as Pi must work through his beliefs and fears, the audience is brought on the journey with him. Director Ang Lee has created a stunningly beautiful film that is touching in the most simple and sincere moments. There are times when it feels as though the beauty of the film may overwhelm the message and the story, but almost as soon as this happens, the film is pulled back from the brink of turning into Avatar (beautiful but bland).
That said, however, it seems as though the film does coast at times, and rely on the visual. Just as Pi begins to accept his fate and surrender to the God that made him, he turns back to do battle with Richard Parker over cans of water and dry biscuits. This subtle and understated manner of examining the story may have worked in the book, but this is when the film suffers from being too beautiful. It is only when the story has ended, and the audience has to make up their mind as to which version of Pi’s story – human cruelty or sailing with a tiger – they believe, that the one dimensional examination of the story becomes clear. Pi says to the Writer that the story will make him believe in God, but somehow the message is lost behind beautiful visuals of whales, jellyfish and the vast expanse of the ocean.
In all, Ang Lee has taken a powerful book and created a beautiful version of the story on the big screen. There are moments where the film forgets what it sets out to do – make the viewer believe in god – but the visual goes some way to making up for the failings of the lofty intentions of the film. Perhaps there is no god, only cinema… In which case, Ang Lee has created a masterful, beautiful but slightly superficial deity.