Life of Pi (2012): Ang Lee's visually stimulating tale of survival with a weak intellectual appeal

Lee's perfunctory rendition of Martel's profound literary vision

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

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Life of Pi, Suraj Sharma, Richard Parker, Directed by Ang Lee
Life of Pi (2012)- By Ang Lee

Our Rating: 6.5
IMDb Ratings: 8.3
Genre: Adventure | Drama
CastSuraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain
Country: USA
Runtime: 127 min

Summary: A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor: a fearsome Bengal tiger.

Life of Pi is a 2012 adventure film directed by celebrated Taiwanese American filmmaker Ang Lee. The screenplay of the movie, an adaptation of the award-winning 2001 novel of the same name by Yann Martel, is written by David Magee. An eclectic cast of international actors, including the likes of Irrfan Khan, Gérard Depardieu, Rafe Spall, James Saitu, Andrea Di Stefano, and Tabu, adorns Life of Pi. The movie presents the extraordinary tale of survival of a Pondicherry-based Indian boy named Piscine “Pi” Patel (played by Suraj Sharma) who gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific following a shipwreck.  But guess what? Pi is not alone. He has for company a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a ferocious Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Pi has his back against the wall as he must strategize an escape route while simultaneously trying to ward off any possible danger from his feral companions, especially the imperious Richard Parker. During the course of the journey a strange sort of a relationship develops between two completely different species, Pi and Parker, which makes one contemplate about the importance of companionship in life.

Richard Parker on the prowl, Royal Bengal Tiger, Directed by Ang Lee
Richard Parker in Ang Lee's Life of Pi
It’s would be remiss of me to analyze a movie like Life of Pi without underscoring its technical brilliance. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that on the technical front Life of Pi easily features amongst the best works of cinema. The use of CGI and VFX is absolutely sublime. In fact, the special effects make Life of Pi a visually stunning experience. The panoramic views of the vast Pacific expanse, the breathtaking shots of the marine life, and the close-up sequences of the majestic Richard Parker are simply irresistible to watch. Alas, the same cannot be said of movie’s other aspects! While Lee and his team deserve kudos for using technology to such great effect, they also deserve flak for diluting several motifs (especially spirituality)  that underline Martel’s novel. Sadly, this has become quite consistent with contemporary commercial cinema, and even serious filmmakers of Ang Lee's stature haven’t managed to escape it.  
Life of Pi, Suraj Sharma as the young Pi Patel, Directed by Ang Lee
Suraj Sharma as "Pi" Patel in Life of Pi
Having grown up watching Wuxia serials on television, I have always been a great fan of martial arts—albeit merely as a spectator. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was a dream come true for me. To be able to adapt a Wuxia novel into a full-fledged motion-picture in itself is a remarkable achievement, but to make it good enough to be able to win as many as four Oscars (that too for a foreign language picture) is nothing short of exemplary. Five years later Ang Lee made yet another eccentric gem, Brokeback Mountain (2005), which won three Oscars including the one for the best director. Lee’s movies have never been known for compromising substance for style. Lee, like any great auteur, has never been shy of injecting a sense of realism into his films. Unfortunately, Life of Pie takes a paradigm shift from Lee’s conventional style of filmmaking. The sense of realism has made way for style and glamour. The creativity has taken a backseat to technology. It seems as if the soul of an artist has been sucked dry and what is left of it has some kind of a mechanical precision attached to it.
Life of Pi, A scenic view of the Pacific at sunset, Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel, Life of Pi, Directed by Ang Lee
A Still from Ang Lee's Life of Pi
Most of the themes that Life of Pi touches upon (especially survival) have already been tackled much more effectively in the past. In Cast Away (2000), Robert Zemeckis had brilliantly presented the poignant tale of a FedEx executive who gets stranded on a deserted island. While it’s difficult to overlook the pivotal role played by Tom Hanks’ stellar presence in movie’s overwhelming success, one just cannot ignore the sense of realism, maturity and purpose in Cast Away's plot that’s clearly missing in Life of Pi. Sean Penn's Into the Wild (2007), based on a real-life story, was also quite effective in dealing with similar themes. Another great movie that comes to mind is John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring Lee Marvin and Toshirô Mifune. Also, Life of Pi's somewhat bizarre ending inexplicably reminds one of Tim Burton's fantastical adventure Big Fish (2003)
Life of Pi, Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel, Directed by Ang Lee, Dark Blue Pacific expanse in the night
A Still from Ang Lee's Life of Pi
The acting in Life of Pi ranges from average to good. Debutant Suraj Sharma delivers a decent performance as the young "Pi". A first-year Philosophy student at Delhi University's prestigious St. Stephens College, Sharma had to compete against three thousand other aspirants, who also auditioned for role of Pi, in order to secure the berth in the movie. Due his commitments to the movie, Sharma failed to meet the college's criterion of 66% attendance and had to submit some extra assignments to make up for it. While veteran French actor Gérard Depardieu's single scene appearance as the grumpy cook aboard the Japanese ship is quite easily one of the high points of the movie, Irrfan Khan's portrayal of the grown-up Pi Patel sadly turns out to be a major disappointment. It's a classic case of a talented international actor falling prey to Hollywood's perpetual inability to do justice to talent.
Pi Patel makes it to the Mexican Coast, Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel, Life of Pi Directed by Ang Lee
Pi Patel makes it to the Mexican Coast
Overall, Life of Pi at best is a perfunctory work of cinema that overpromises and under delivers. Despite being visually stimulating, it's quite low on substance.   The real star of the show, for my money, is Richard Parker whose feral presence uplifts the movie. The scenes that feature him are absolutely magical vis-a-vis those that don't. However, it's disappointing to note that most of the scenes involving Pie and Richard Parker have been created digitally. Also, the Pacific Ocean depicted in the movie is a digitally enhanced version of a water tank in Taiwan. And clearly, like so often is the case with contemporary Hollywood productions, the technology ends up overshadowing the human artistry. Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is easily the movie’s strongest part and is well completed by Mychael Danna’s music. Life of Pi serves to be an enthralling experience for the children and less keen audience whose sole purpose is entertainment, but those wanting to indulge themselves at much higher levels are ought to be disappointed. 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!  

For more information on the title, please click on the following links:

Life of Pi (2012) Trailer
Previous Review: Three Colors: Blue (1993)

Next Review: Talaash (2012)

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  1. Nice review..........

  2. It looks like a wonderful movie...nicely reviewed

  3. Thanks... I am really glad you liked it :-)

  4. I shouldn't have read this, Murtaza, before seeing the film. I enjoyed the novel, and liked what I read about the movie till now. I trust your judgement of cinema a lot, so I can see what you are saying. Will let you know if I disagree after watching the film.

  5. Totally agree with you. If you see, people are liking it more for the visual effects than the plot itself. That's a failure.

    We've seen better from Ang Lee. The novel still remains 'unfilmable'.

  6. Thanks a ton for those kind words, Sir! I would love to hear from you after you have watched it!!! :-)

  7. Thanks a lot for sharing your valuable opinion. I agree with you that Martel's novel still remains unadaptable... coincidentally that's precisely what Lee's first impression had been when he was approached by the producers!!! And, yes, Lee indeed is capable of making much more brilliant films. I think he should take a break from commercial filmmaking and focus on art-cinema (or experimental cinema) for a few years... something on the lones of Francis Ford Coppola. Irrespective of what people say about Coppola's recent experimental films, I respect him for his sheer tenacity and love for filmmaking.

  8. One correction- The Tiger's name was Richard Parker not Peter Parker. Peter Parker as the character name in Spider man.

  9. Oops... a really bad mistake... strange that I referred to it as Richard in seven places and Peter in two. Anyway, thanks a lot for bringing it to my notice... have made the correction :-)

  10. Saptarshi ChakrabortyNovember 26, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Just watched the movie this morning and I couldn't agree more. I felt that like so many western directors Ang and the writer for that matter, had a less than adequate understanding of India and its nuances. For example how likely is it for a Tamil speaking family in Pondicherry to bear the surname of Patel?

  11. Quite an astute observation... the movie does have many incongruities. Since you have already been to Pondicherry, they would have appeared more noticeable to you. Btw, I am really glad that you agree with my assessment of the movie. I actually found the trailer of Peter Jackson's upcoming movie "The Hobbit" to be more enthralling than the entire film. Another movie that you must lookout for is Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master!!!

  12. Haven't seen the movie yet, and intend to do so in the next 2-3 days. But you have reviewed it really well. Like how you have gone beyond just the story per se, and also notable is thy's command over the language. Kudos!

  13. Well that's disappointing. I am still probably going to see it this weekend, but with lowered expectations.

  14. Bonjour, I would love to hear from you once you have watched it! :-)

  15. I agree with most of what you said, but I definitely enjoyed it more than you. I especially like how you compared with Cast Away, as I felt there was something missing here from the screenwriting, to make you really feel that sense of destitution.

    With regards to the religious aspects, I was expecting the film to be more about spirituality rather than explicitly God and specific religions. Is that what you mean by "they also deserve flak for diluting several motifs (especially spirituality)?" I'm quite curious to see how it was expressed in the novel.

    We certainly disagree on Irrfan Khan. I thought he was fantastic in this role! I'm not sure what you thought was lacking there, as it's really just a small "talking head" character. I thought he did very well, all things considered.

  16. Thanks a ton for an extremely thoughtful reply. From what I have heard about the novel, it actually deals with the intrinsic aspects of spirituality rather than deities or religion in particular. IMO, Life of Pi completely failed to capture the true essence of spirituality. Pi's plight neither succeeded in arousing my sympathy nor did it manage to strengthen my belief in God. In fact, I was left completely untouched by the entire affair which is usually not the case with Lee's cinema. Irrfan Khan is a gifted actor (I have been following him closely for almost two decades right from his television serial days, when I had myself been a school kid) and when someone of his caliber goes completely unnoticed, it's nothing short of a major disappointment.

  17. Thanks Neeraj for those kind words... I feel highly obliged. Btw, I would love to hear from you once you have watched it!!! :-)

  18. A comprehensive review! I agree that the technical aspects completely outdo everything in the film. It is visually a very aesthetic film. But I think that both Suraj Sharma and Irfan Khan did a good job with their roles.

  19. A comprehensive review! I agree that the technical aspects completely outdo everything in the film. It is visually a very aesthetic film. But I think that both Suraj Sharma and Irfan Khan did a good job with their roles.

  20. Thanks Aakanksha... I am really glad that you liked it!!! Irrfan Khan's performance at best was average given the high standards that he usually sets. Suraj's performance in the movie none the less is good enough for someone who is making his debut and is not a trained actor... :-)

  21. I didnt Read the post but just watched the trailer
    and must say mind blowing
    sure goona watch this movie

  22. Thanks Kartik...I will love to hear from you once you have watched it :-)

  23. Nice review, totally agree with your sentiments. If this had been made for $10million rather than $100million I suspect it would have been far better. Lee is forced to try to appeal to too many people to make the money back.

  24. Well, you are spot on. It was indeed disappointing to see Lee choose the easy way out... it could have been one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time had it not been for Lee's commercial commitments.

  25. It was a good review but i have to disagree for don't think that Ang Lee had a commercial commitment with this movie. I believe that it's all about the journey
    Watching it twice i realized that Lee had made several scenes to make us doubt of the reality of the first story. In the scene when the hyena kills Orange Juice and Pi is screaming to the hyena Richard Parker comes out from behind him, and in the scene with the flying fishes we see a richard parker from a first person perspective from Pi, but then in the same take the camera moves and it show us Pi's feet from the perspective of Parker. I believe that the point of the movie it's not which story is true, but the fact that there are two perspectives: The religious one (The Story of the tiger and the island) and the one of Reason (The Story of the cook) yet it does not matter which story we choose. They both lead us on a journey of self discovery and they both change our life forever.

    However i enjoyed your review, i didn't know much about Sharma, now thanks to you i do :)

  26. Thanks Francis... I am glad you liked it. Also, I have replied to this comment in a separate mail...!!!


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