Review originally published September 18, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
"Who trusted God was love indeed/And love Creation's final law/Tho' Nature red in tooth and claw/With ravine shriek'd against his creed" - Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
"I'm on a Boat" - Foursquare.
Talk about high expectations. "This story will make you believe in God," narrator Irrfan Khan promises listener Rafe Spall. The former, a relaxed, middle-aged man with sadness in his eyes, making some lunch in his nondescript Canadian home. The latter, a blocked novelist following a tip on a tale too good not to write about (and, perhaps, too good to be true.)
We open in Pondicherry, a former French section of India, and its colors and architecture burst off the screen. Director Ang Lee uses every corner of the frame to create an outstanding tapestry of images, quickly assuaging any fears that the use of 3-D is an exhibitor's cash grab. (Most will agree this is the best use of stereo since Martin Scorsese's "Hugo," or, perhaps, ever.) Our young hero is named Piscine Patel, named for a particularly gorgeous French swimming pool, but after schoolyard torments he changes his name to Pi.
He ceremonial self-appellation, math jokes included, is one of a number of marvelous, joyous sequences in the emotionally resonant first act. The Patel family owns a zoo, and this closeness to animals is a part of Pi's upbringing. Pondicherry is a diverse neighborhood, so he's exposed not only to his inherited Hinduism, but Catholicism and Islam, as well. He is a boy that is receptive to the notion of God, but cannot choose which faith to go with. He, therefore, takes aspects of them all, to the mild consternation of his secular humanist father.
Pi's childhood faith-shopping is quite beautiful and respectful, and something quite under-discussed in cinema. Some may question what this lengthy prologue has to do with the bulk of the film, but, tonally, it is key to setting the course of the story.
The Patel family's finances force them to pull up stakes and sail for Canada, taking their zoo animals with them. Pi, a teenager now, and a little bit defiant, allows his sense of invincibility to take him out to the ship's deck during a major storm. Turns out this works in his favor, as he is one of the few creatures to survive. He finds himself on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a rat, an angry hyena and the gorgeous and regal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
The tiger's name is explained in the story, but it is actually a reference to well known victims/survivors of shipwrecks. Eventually, it is just the two of them in the boat, well, the three of them, if you count God, and you should, as "Life of Pi" is one of the more vehemently pro-faith films you'll see that doesn't star Kirk Cameron.
The God of "Life of Pi" is tough to pin down. One image of Pi in silhouette against the magic hour sky as he shouts "No!" to the fighting beasts is a postcard from Deist thought. There are no loaves, but man are there multiplying (and flying!) fishes. But the bulk of the picture studies the Hindu belief of animals having souls. The way Lee photographs Richard Parker's deep, penetrating eyes leaves little doubt, but there's enough fight in the film and its portrayal of animal instinct and indifference to let the opposing view make its case.
Pi and Richard Parker have the standard survivalist struggles, variants of those you can find in everything from "Mutiny on the Bounty" to Peter Weir's "The Way Back." The spin here is Lee's visual exuberance and alacrity. Unlike "127 Hours," there are few cutaways into Pi's mind, making Lee's achievement perhaps even more extraordinary. There isn't a dull moment in the film, and there are about 300 worthy of a "wow."
Unfortunately, much of the dialogue (both spoken or narrated) is a tad too earnest for my taste. When moments of levity do come they are as welcome as a pail of rainwater at sea. "Life of Pi" is also one of those movies that has to end by telling you what a great movie you saw. This device works in, say, Milos Forman's "Amadeus," because, yes, that is indeed a thick, juicy story with outrageous characters and fascinating reversals. "Life of Pi" is a gorgeously filmed, fictional tone poem about a guy and a tiger on a boat thinking about God. Not quite the same.
Though I consider myself a secular humanist, I don't begrudge or shun artists of faith who put their devotion into their work. I'll cite Denys Arcand's "Jesus of Montreal" and Xavier Beauvois' "Of Gods of Men" as two films I adore, and those are just the ones in French. "Life of Pi," however, doesn't quite reach a sublime level. At the third act twist, where things become a bit fantastic, it comes apart, and then ultimately whimpers off like a drenched cat. The flat ending is quite a letdown, especially in comparison to just how much the rest of the film resonates.
If you come to "Life of Pi" looking for answers, I think you will be very disappointed. (Or, if you do find answers, you are a very easy mark.) As filmmaking, however, it is a knockout, and there are moments, one in particular only a jerk would spoil, that should be included in every "iconic images in cinema" moments for the rest of time. In short, get on the boat and drift a while.