Even if you haven’t read Yann Martel‘s Life of Pi, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about the main story, in which an Indian teenager named Pi (portrayed in the movie by Suraj Sharma) is trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger, and has to figure out a way to survive for many weeks without the help of anyone else. There’s a bit more to it than that—the novel is split into three sections—but the part of the book that is best remembered and most often shared to people who haven’t read it is the whole survival journey.
It makes sense that this part of Life of Pi, director Ang Lee‘s adaptation of the novel, is the one that works the best. The framework around which this story is presented involves the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling the story to a novelist (Rafe Spall), from the present day. We begin and end in Pi’s house, and the majority of the film is presented as a flashback. unfortunately, it takes a good forty minutes to get to the part where Pi is on the lifeboat, and this section of the film is painful to sit through.
Part of the problem is how preachy it feels. The entire story is supposed to make you believe in God. Fair enough. Have whatever message you want. However, hammering it home before we’ve even heard the story diminishes its effect. Continuing to state your point before you’ve done a single thing to prove it doesn’t make us inclined to care or agree with you. The story can be the most incredible thing ever, but saying that while you’re telling us some unimportant back story about our main character isn’t going to do much of anything except bore your audience.
Anyway, yes, we do learn about Pi as he grows up, and it takes a dreadfully long time to do so. I think it might have worked better to mix in a bit of back story as Pi is on the boat—we’re told he has to keep his mind focused on something, after all, so memories could be exactly that—although I get the thinking behind getting it out of the way right off the bat. That doesn’t stop it from almost killing the picture right away, but persevere and you’ll eventually get to the good part.
Once the ship goes down, Pi gets stranded on the lifeboat, and the only interaction he gets with another living thing is with Richard Parker, the aforementioned tiger, Life of Pi gets good. Really good, in fact. The visuals are astounding, the survival aspect of his journey is really compelling, and there’s absolutely no preach to the proceedings. There simply is this boy and this tiger and Pi has to figure out a way to survive given this circumstance.
Life of Pi is absolutely worth seeing for the middle section, but it isn’t a complete viewing experience.
And then, once this story has come to a close, we get the final act. As I said earlier, we end in the house of adult Pi, who then begins the preaching again. The logic behind this preaching—after a late-game “twist,” if you can call it that—is incomprehensible. Will the story make you believe in God? Maybe, but then the film (and book; this isn’t a problem exclusive to Ang Lee’s movie) ruins all of that. You witness something beautiful and wondrous, and then it gets thrown aside. Sometimes, these things should stand on their own. No more words need to be said.
It goes further than this. There’s a completely unnecessary scene in which the novelist breaks down the metaphors presented, as if he’s talking down directly to the audience, thinking that we’re incapable of understanding what the film is saying to us. We get that, along with an already very viable preachy nature. It’s too much. It significantly hampers the film. However, I don’t think it harms it enough to make it something you should avoid.
The main reason you go to see this—apart from seeing a beloved novel turned into a film—is for the visuals. Even the bad Ang Lee films look gorgeous, and Life of Pi is no exception. In fact, it looks so good that you can forgive almost everything about it. The cinematography is breathtaking, the CGI is about as convincing as current technology permits, and every shot is so wonderfully framed. Just looking at Life of Pi is an experience to treasure.
The film also contains a strong performance from Suraj Sharma, playing the 16-year-old Pi. Sharma is a newcomer, and was a great pick. He’s expressive, has a lot of range, and can go from fearsome to timid in a matter of moments. If the character of Pi wasn’t completely overshadowed by Richard Parker, the tiger, he might get even more acclaim. The tiger was my favorite, though, perhaps in large part because seeing such a realistic tiger do all the things this one does is a wonder to behold, and something you won’t see in any other movie.
Life of Pi is a mixed movie. For the majority of its running time, it’s an intense, beautiful, awe-inspiring film about a boy and a tiger surviving together on a lifeboat. However, this is bookended by a preachy film whose logic isn’t exactly sound, and whose characters are so unimportant that it’s entirely possible to stop caring prior to, or after, the boy/tiger/boat story. Life of Pi is absolutely worth seeing for the middle section, but it isn’t a complete viewing experience, which is unfortunate and is a problem directly from the source material.
Conclusion: Life of Pi has a tremendous middle section that’s bookended by mediocrity and preachiness.
Recommendation: Life of Pi is worth watching, just don’t expect greatness.