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Film review: LIFE OF PI, from Built For Speed

Adaptations of massively popular contemporary novels are dubious prospects as evidenced by the dreary film version of The Da Vinci Code.  So it was with some trepidation I settled in for Ang Lee’s movie version of Yann Martel’s biblically themed adventure novel Life of Pi.  I hadn’t read the novel but from the trailer I feared its story of one man’s bizarre special effects driven spiritual journey would be cheesy and overblown like Forest Gump.

While there are cringe-worthy moments (light pouring from the heavens and the title character affirming his faith in God), the film does have, on both a visual and dramatic level, many genuinely impressive sequences.

Structurally the film recalls old school epics from the 1960’s like Lawrence of Arabia as it involves someone regaling a stunned biographer with an astonishing story of survival and spiritual awakening. Here Irfan Kahn plays a middle-aged man named Pi who recounts his bizarre life to author Rafe Spall.  As an educated and privileged youngster in India whose family owned a zoo, Pi seemed to have an ideal life.   His world was thrown into turmoil, though, when the government evicted his family from the zoo grounds and his father decided to transport the family and the animals to Canada.  When a storm sank the ship, Pi the only human survivor was left becalmed in a lifeboat miles from anywhere. To make matters worse he had to share the life-boat with a very hungry tiger.

The film’s shift from socio-cultural, teen rites of passage drama to a Noah’s ark style spiritual parable is strange but not too hard to swallow. Much of the film is actually about the visceral reality of survival in an unforgiving environment.  Still, the film does contain many fanciful over-the-top cgi sequences. Some of these, such as Pi’s trippy fever dreams and an island populated by swarms of Meer cats are stunning. The animation of the CGI tiger is also remarkably fluid.   Unfortunately, there are times when the weird, Disneyesque phantasmagoria of images makes it hard to connect with Pi on an emotional level and to empathise with his situation.

From this elaborate survival story and special effects extravaganza emerges a film about the battle between faith and pragmatism, a conflict that began in Pi’s life when he informed his hard-headed atheist father that he was a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim all at once.  This examination of faith also involves a jarring revelation toward the end of the film which challenges our perceptions of Pi and may prove too abrupt a change in direction for some viewers.

Life of Pi is a thought provoking and at times visually stunning film but it is not completely successful as an adventure or spiritual parable.

 

Nick’s rating: Three stars.

Classification: PG

Director(s): Ang Lee

Release date: 1st Jan 2013

Running time: 127 mins.

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