Film review: ‘Life of Pi’

Carljoe Javier

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'Even though dark, heavy things happen, there is this underlying feeling of assurance, of things working out'

COLORS AND ENLIGHTENMENT. The greatest asset of the film is the delivery of one overwhelmingly beautiful image after another. Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – Before we get to the main review, I have to admit to two things which probably colored my viewing of “Life of Pi”: 

I did not read the novel, so I went into this with little more than the swooping mix of Coldplay’s “Paradise” and the promise of a life-changing experience, from the trailer.

Next, as a secular humanist, I had trouble with the “god exists, let me tell you a story that will make you believe in god” assertions that came heavy-handedly throughout the film.

Those who already subscribe to a god-centered worldview will probably find a lot of the ideas and assertions in the film comforting, but those who would engage such ideas on more than an emotional level would be disappointed. 

'Let me tell you a story that will make you believe in God.' Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

Here’s the thing about “Life of Pi” though: Lots of people are going to love it.

The people who loved the book and who have a grasp of a lot of the things that did not make the transition to the film will enjoy it. (I watched with a big fan who talked me through some of the parts which I felt were weak. I don’t want to drop any spoilers, but she said that it all works if you know the book. On a film theory level, this should not be acceptable, but considering the current climate of film adaptation, well, this is how it is. The same was said of “Hunger Games.”)

Also, if the film’s inspirational tone and worldview conform with and affirm your own, then you will love “Life of Pi.” 

I just sort of liked it.

Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

The greatest asset of “Life of Pi” is director Ang Lee’s commitment to delivering one overwhelmingly beautiful image after another.

Your eyes will pop with the kinds of images that the film provides. There is no shortage of rich imagery in this film, and as it progresses, we get so many beautiful shots.

Even though you might think it would run out, what with the majority of it being set as sea, it still manages to provide us with striking images.

I particularly like the play of colors, which stand out especially in the early scenes which are set in India, before the film moves out to its main section.

Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

The story is about Pi, whose interesting background is shown in the preliminary half hour or so. His family owns a zoo, and he grows up with some interesting stories. This opening section of the film is very whimsical and fun.

Pi’s family decides to move to Canada, so they wind up on a freighter traversing the seas with their animals, trying to get to the Western Hemisphere.

A killer storm hits, sinking the freighter (don’t hate me for spoilers, it’s in the trailer) and leaving Pi with a lifeboat full of animal friends, most significantly a tiger. And so we get the struggle, the “story” behind it, which is supposed to prove to us the existence of a higher power.

Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

The film is framed by a talk that Pi is having with an author. The author is looking for material for a novel, so this occasion is Pi’s recounting of his unbelievable adventure.

I felt that this was a weak framing device, and the author-Pi scenes became a bit intrusive, pulling us out of the story and often explaining things unnecessarily, as if we had to be led by the hand to understand things. 

I feel though that the promise of a life-changing, life-shattering journey is oversold. Perhaps it’s all of the trailers and marketing. Perhaps it’s my admiration of Ang Lee’s body of work, and how I have found a good number of his films, if not life-changing, then at least paradigm-challenging. Perhaps I just expected a bit too much from the film.

Whatever it was, I walked away underwhelmed. 

Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

I think part of it might be tone. There is a lightness to the whole film, the whimsical, fantastical sense that is imbued in the whole thing.

So even though dark, heavy things happen, there is this underlying feeling of assurance, of things working out. And so even the dark reveal at the end is underplayed because of the light tone that is established. 

Whatever it was, I came away feeling that the film lacked a certain gravity to it. It isn’t for lack of acting, as Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi for the bulk of the flick, does a great job, being the only human onscreen for large chunks of time. And it isn’t lack of imagery either.

Suraj Sharma (Pi) with director Ang Lee. Photo from the 'Life of Pi' Facebook page

Maybe it was the sense that there was not enough at stake, or that things were a foregone conclusion. 

But then there lies the problem of worldview. The film is supposed to be inspirational. It’s a feel good movie for almost everyone. So even when it has to look at something dark, it does not plunge into and explore that darkness fully.

I am not asking that the film be extremely dark, as that isn’t its project. However, without that darkness, it’s hard to appreciate the light as much. 

Then again, “Life of Pi” does have a lot to offer. It is a visual feast. It does sincerely tell a story that shoots for uplift.

And many people will find it rich, rewarding, and comforting. –


(“Life of Pi” will screen in the Philippines on January 9, 2013.)

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