What we have here is a commercial film with an Indian protagonist that takes very seriously the subject of spirituality, vegetarianism, the meaning of life and whether or not animals have souls. Thanksgiving weekend draws tons of families to theaters, and the marketing for Life of Pi doesn't reveal much. The audience won't learn until they've already bought their tickets and are trapped in a dark theater that the protagonist identifies as Catholic, Muslim and Hindu out of a voracious love of God. I wonder how many traditional Christians will leave the theater feeling confused and angry about what they've seen without knowing why.
Pi Patel is a little boy growing up in India with his father, mother and older brother. They own a zoo, but times are tough, and when Pi is a young adult, his father decides to sell the zoo and move his family to Canada. Pi says goodbye to his girlfriend and sets out on an ocean voyage with a crew of belligerent white people and a few precious animals. But the ship sinks, and Pi is sent adrift on a lifeboat with a ragtag collection of non-human stowaways, the most formidable among them being a large Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. There's not much more to the plot than that. Pi is out to sea for days, weeks, months. We know he makes it to Canada eventually, because the story is told to us in a flashback. What happens between the shipwreck and his eventual brush with land is less a series of events than it is an emotional and visual experience.
Life of Pi is based on the 2001 novel by Yann Partel. I read the book years ago based on a friend's recommendation, which is how most everyone comes to this book. I don't know anyone who's read it that wasn't affected one way or another. It has long been referred to as an "unfilmable" novel, probably because 1) So much of the story takes place in Pi's brain. How do you film a religious moment of surrender, for example? 2) The co-stars are mostly wild animals. I am happy to report that director Ang Lee made it work. The film does suffer a little from the CGI curselately, supposedly "live action" movies tend to look cartoonish and overly polishedbut the result is bizarre and surreal, and overall, it works. There's a hyper reality to the animals, confounded by the 3D, but we're not watching a documentary. There's a time and a place for gritty realism, and this film is not that.
Lee is one of the weirder and more accomplished directors we have. This is the guy whose work includes Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Ice Storm. What these movies have in common is a tremendous depth and feeling, and interestingly enough, they're all adaptations of novels or short stories.
Life of Pi is an ambitious, sweet film, but more than that, it's substantive and brave. Fans of the book will be heartened to learn that the film hasn't shied away from the novel's darker moments. I wondered how it was going to handle the book's complicated and ambiguous ending. Without giving too much away, I'll say that it does so with simplicity and grace; I'm still not sure what's real and what isn't.
It's worth noting that the movie opened fifth at the box office over the holiday weekend and made a dismal $22 million, stateside. For comparison, the new Twilight movie made twice that. I can't say that I'm surprised by Life of Pi's initial tally. But maybe, like the book, the movie will find the audience it deserves based on word of mouth.