by Bob Garver
Life of Pi is the best film of the 2012 Thanksgiving season. The film is expertly crafted by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ang Lee, it features an amazing debut performance from actor Suraj Sharma, it has perhaps the most beautiful water and aquatic life ever depicted on film, and there’s a big Bengal tiger just waiting for you to show it love. Despite all of these attributes, the film has failed to climb higher than fifth place at the box office for the past two weekends. Fifth place over a lucrative holiday weekend is not exactly a shameful performance, but I would like to see it do better. There’s still time for you to give it your family’s business while fleeting kiddie junk like Rise of the Guardians falls like a rock off the charts.
The film’s early scenes depict the childhood of our hero Pi (Sharma) as he grows up in India. He overcomes bullying through mathematics (or at least memorizing numbers); an inspiring feat that I’m sure would get him bullied even worse outside of this uplifting movie. His family runs a local zoo, and his father teaches him at a young age to respect and fear the animals, particularly a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. He experiments with various religions, and his family has a spirited discussion on the subject of spirituality. These scenes are surprisingly compelling and workmanlike considering that they take place before we get to the action. You’ll get a real appreciation for the dynamic and chemistry of Pi’s family, which sadly means that you’ll miss them all the more when they vanish in a spectacular shipwreck.
Pi soon finds himself the lone human survivor of the wreck, sharing a lifeboat with a pitiable zebra, a sympathetic orangutan, a malicious hyena, and the enigma that is Richard Parker. Perhaps inevitably, the boat’s crew is quickly down to Pi and Richard Parker. At first Pi lives in fear of Richard Parker, surviving on a makeshift raft independent of the relative luxury of the lifeboat. Slowly the two form a bond of mutual dependency – Richard Parker depends on Pi to provide him with his future food supply and Pi depends on Richard Parker not to make him his future food supply. This relationship built on fear and need gradually turns into one of respect and friendship as the two share the experience of a lifetime.
The film never misses an opportunity to look absolutely gorgeous. Scenes set on land are none too shabby (my favorite being a lush, unspoiled island) but it’s at sea when the film is really a feast for the eyes. Colorful marine life pops up all the time to remind our heroes that they are a small part of a big thriving world. The water itself is spellbinding, often harsh and unforgiving, but on rare occasion so tranquil and glasslike in consistency that I could swear the boat had washed ashore. The animals are, of course, rendered flawlessly to maximize the emotional impact. Richard Parker is legitimately scary at times, but believe me you’ll be feeling for him when he gets thin and mangy. For that matter, you’ll be equally moved by the performance of Suraj Sharma as Pi starts to look thin and mangy himself.
Life of Pi is filled with moments that are meant to be savored. Maybe the last act could go along at a faster clip because Pi is telling the story as an adult (Irrfan Khan) so we’re fairly sure of the outcome of some of his do-or-die decisions. Pi’s story is more interesting when the question is “how does he?” than when the question is simply “does he?”. Even then the film manages to throw some uncertainty into the narrative. Such is the challenging nature of Life of Pi, one of the most intelligent, exciting, and impressive family films of the year.
Three Stars out of Five.
Life of Pi is rated PG for emotional thematic material throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. Its running time is 127 minutes.
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