I didn’t get to see Life of Pi in 3D. The theater/church I went to simply didn’t have that kind of technology/divine intervention. When I read a review by TIME Magazine on the poster outside that read: “The Next Avatar” I almost didn’t go in. Some movies use 3D as a quick cash-in, but Ang Lee’s Life of Pi struck me as a film that genuinely wanted to showcase the capabilities of 3D as an artform. Maybe I didn’t get to experience the full visual force of Pi, but I still walked away with a great appreciation for it’s thematic force and striking sense of whimsy.
Based off of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name, Life of Pi is the story of Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) sharing his larger-than-life story of survival with a Canadian novelist (Rafe Spall). Pi (played by Suraj Sharma in the past) speaks of his upbringing in Pondicherry, India where his family owned a local zoo. It was there that Pi gained a great appreciation for animals, particularly a tiger named Richard Parker (named from a clerical error). It was also in these years that Pi discovered faith, three faiths in fact. As a boy Pi embraces Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. Despite clashing ideals in these religions, Pi finds ways to make each faith play an integral part in his life and later his survival. Eventually, Pi’s family must sell their zoo and start a new life in Canada. Pi’s family boards a Japanese ship across the pacific, but through some unexplained twist of fate the ship sinks. Pi ends up on a lifeboat with a group of animal’s including; a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, though it’s eventually dwindled down to just Pi and Richard Parker.
Most of Life of Pi plays off of Pi’s attempt to form some kind of understanding with the vicious Richard Parker. Trying to care for Richard Parker gives Pi some sense of purpose, even if the relationship isn’t reciprocal. This unlikely pairing is accomplished through an inspired performance from newcomer Suraj Sharma and landmark visual effects. I assumed the animal effects in Life of Pi were a careful balance of CGI and live action. What I didn’t know until after seeing the film is that there were only in fact one or two scenes where a real Bengal tiger was used. I can’t believe it. We’ve finally reached the point where I’m not even sure what I’m seeing onscreen is real or fake.
I’m not even going to attempt to describe the visuals Life of Pi. The film finds a good balance of making fantasy and reality look equally believable. My only complaint is that Life of Pi does go overboard from time to time. The fanciful visual transitions between Pi’s story and Pi telling the story didn’t add much to the narrative. Additionally, it’s not until you see a 3D movie not in 3D that you realize some shots aren’t necessary. “Hey, look! That hummingbird flew right up to the screen.” While some of these shots progress the visual flow others feel distracting. Of course these shots don’t hurt the film, they’re just unnecessary.
Faith is the strongest theme in Life of Pi. As the elder Pi initially tells the novelist “I will tell you a story that will make you believe in god.” Faith is present in Pi’s ability to trust Richard Parker and whether or not he wants to believe animals truly have souls. But faith is most crucial in how the audience decides to interpret the film’s open-ended final question. It’s a question that makes you examine everything you’ve just seen. “Are you the kind of person who believes in things that always make sense? Or are you the kind or person who is willing to take the occasional leap of faith?” I love when films let the audience come to their own conclusion instead of everything being spelled out.