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Yann Martel's Life of Pi is a national bestseller that received critical acclaim, and was awarded the 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize and the 2002 Man Booker Prize. More importantly, this book is one of the most engaging and thought-provoking books I have ever read, and is well deserving of all of its accolades. And, to quote the back cover, it will make you believe in God.

Life of Pi is a story in three parts about the early Life of Piscine Molitar Patel, an Indian boy who moves to Canada. No, wait, keep reading! It's not a boring coming-of-age story.

Part one focuses on Pi's early life in Pondicherry, India, living with his family by the Pondicherry Zoo. His father is the zookeeper, you see. Despite his parent's attempt at being thoroughly modern and therefore agnostic, Pi is a very spiritual boy. He becomes a Hindu devotee, a devout Christian, and a strict Muslim, all at the same time. Of course, there is an inevitable confrontation. We also meet Mr. Kumar, one of Pi's teachers who is an atheist. At the end of part one we think "how very nice, but this doesn't make me believe in God".

Part two focuses on sixteen-year-old Pi's time at sea, alone in a lifeboat with a hyena, an orang-utan, a zebra, and a Royal Bengal tiger. What? It makes perfect sense! I told you, his father was a zookeeper. Actually, so much of the magic of Life of Pi lies in Yann Martel's ability to weave such an improbable story, and yet describe it in such detail that it seems very real. Every action is necessary and logical in Pi's day to day survival. We watch as he fishes, purifies seawater for drinking, and feeds the tiger. At the end of part two, we think "gee, that was a great book, but what's this got to do with God?" That's why there's a part three...

As for part three, it consists of a recorded interview with Pi Patel soon after his adventure at sea. It is the shortest part, about 30 pages, and yet it unifies the previous two parts and makes you believe in God, but only if you are paying attention. You'll know you've got it when the hairs on your neck stand up.

Describing Life of Pi is an extremely difficult thing to do. There are so many details that I don't want to spoil, and whenever I try to protect these things, any sort of review merely becomes me going "hey, read this book it's really really good and it makes you believe in God!" And, well, it is and it does, so read it.

It's now been adapted into a film, directed by Ang Lee and starring both Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan (among others) as the eponymous Pi. As usual for a waverider37 review, spoilers (and heaps of them) follow.

I have never read the book, so I'm going purely on JyZude's synopsis above. It's more or less the same, except that "part three" (the interview) is not at the very end, but rather scattered throughout the film. It still chronicles the adventures of Pi as he grows up in India, then is the lone survivor of a shipwreck. Again, an improbable story is told in a realistic fashion, but this time we can actually visualise how Pi survives the disaster, then the ensuing hardships on a lifeboat with a tiger (named "Richard Parker" - this oblique name comes from a clerical error).

I'll start with the obvious comparison-with-book stuff. From what I can tell, the book is very linear (please correct me if I'm wrong), but given that the interview pops up at several stages throughout the film it is pretty clear to see that Pi will survive the ordeal. Perhaps it's my analytical mind, but I made note of this at several stages throughout the film. Having said that, it didn't detract from the storyline except at one point, when Pi remarks to "Richard Parker" that they are going to die. Ditto for my immediate feeling of "oh man this is going to be a Cast Away clone" when the ship sinks. So, the storyline is cool, though I have one major point to add about it.

Whenever I see a film with any sort of surrealism that isn't a kids' movie or sci-fi fantasy, I immediately think "stream of consciousness". I even think that of comedies (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is a brilliant example). It was only natural, therefore, that as soon as the jellyfish sea jellies started glowing the phrase popped into my mind. And perhaps it was a stream of consciousness. I don't know. I have no idea how Yann Martel meant for the storyline to go, nor how screenwriter David Magee interpreted it, but my interpretation is that Pi was perhaps hallucinating, dreaming, daydreaming, or something similar. Reason? To keep his brain occupied, to avoid insanity, or because he was already half-insane due to loneliness...? Don't know, don't much care, because amazing cinematography.

Yes. This was the thing that drew me to the film. Like Avatar some years ago, it came with a lot of promise of awesome CGI. And naturally, with exotic animals in the film, it had to be pretty amazing cinematography. It promised, it delivered. It was colourful, it was enchanting, it was gripping, it was all of the above. No doubt awards will be won. And it also wasn't over-the-top, unrealistic (to a point), or cartoonish. I have absolutely no gripes in this respect.

Acting? For the story given, the acting was remarkably good. Not my favourite, but still very good. I particularly enjoyed Pi's courting of Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath) - it is a stunningly correct example of many teenage boys' experiences with relationships. I also liked Adil Hussain's portrayal of Pi's father - one minute he is a kind father trying to teach Pi about religion, the next, furious at Pi for attempting to bond with "Richard Parker". His role was short, but became a powerful influence in other parts of the story. Flawless acting, also, by all three actors who played the part of Pi's big brother Ravi (the most screen time going to Vibish Sivakumar), being the second half of a sibling relationship that reminded me very strongly (though not painfully) of the relationship between myself and my own sister.

Soundtrack? Wonderfully minimalistic. In fact, I noted a couple of points where there was no music. This deliciously brought out the sound effects from the screen and made me feel as though I could be there1. Everything else? Not much that detracted from the storyline in any big way. I did feel that the "second part" was a bit drawn-out, though, and I did feel that eerie sense of "this ain't realistic" creeping in aroundabout the time he hit the "carnivorous island". Having said that, though, meerkats make everything better... until the rather anticlimactic ending hit.

The ultimate question, asked at both ends of the film: does Pi's story make you believe in God? Nope. Perhaps I didn't read into the story in the right way, or perhaps the notion was too grand, but I remain very atheist afterwards.
The second ultimate question: which story do I believe? The story with the tiger, or without? Personally, I prefer a third story that is a nice amalgamation of the two. In my interpretation, the animal story is correct up to a point (the timing of which I am a little uncertain), but then it dives into Pi's psyche, whether daydream or hallucination. Indeed, it is deliberately left ambiguous as to which story viewers believe: should I think that Pi really did connect and coexist with "Richard Parker", or that human lives hung in the balance the entire time to the point where Pi watched his own mother being killed? And before you answer this for yourself (if you've seen the film or read the book), think for a second: where were "Richard Parker"'s footprints2? He walked across sand at the end of the film - did Pi even look for them, or convince his rescuers to look for them?

Enough. Hopefully that's enough for folks to think about, so I'll give it 7.5/10 and leave it at that.

1Compare and contrast with Star Wars episodes IV and III, respectively - less music in the former made it feel more real than the latter.
2While writing this review, I note the "footprints" story, reproduced here. I am not sure exactly how much bearing this has, or indeed should have, on the rest of the story, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader if s/he so wishes.

Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's "unfilmable" award-winning novel, made it to the theatres late in 2012. Ang Lee's adaptation may not, as its hero claims, make you believe in God, but I know it made me forgive the director for Hulk and reconsider the viability of 3-D movies.

It concerns a boy who gets shipwrecked with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Pi, a young Indian named for a French swimming pool, grows up in a zoo and becomes fascinated with religions. When times threaten to turn difficult, his parents pack up the family and head to Canada on the same ship that will transport most of the zoo animals for sale.

When a storm wrecks the ship, Pi must survive a harrowing ocean journey against seemingly impossible odds and fantastic events. Richard Parker, the most immediate threat, must also become his ally.

Many readers find the book slow-moving, especially in the initial portions that develop Pi's character before his fateful journey. The movie, wisely, minimizes those portions. They serve their purpose, but the creators knew that a film had to find its way to sea before long. Nevertheless, the pacing still lags in some places.

A great deal rests upon the cast, in particular, the previously-unknown lead. Fortunately, teen actor Shiraj Sharma proves equal to the task. He apparently took intensive training in ocean survival, yoga, and other relevant disciplines. His preparation shows. The rest of the human cast do admirably-- and the animals are outstanding.

The animals are a mix of real creatures and CGI. These effects rank with the best past achievements. Richard Parker is as fully-realized and credible a character as the cinematic Gollum. The film's incredible visual elements may be, in fact, its greatest achievement.

For the first time— ever— I exited a 3-D film without thinking one of the following:
a) The effects are cool, but I'd have been just as happy without them. Stupid extra fee for glasses I'm going to return!
b) What a freakin' pointless overused gimmick! Please, Hollywood, stop with the 3-D!

Ang Lee has composed shots which would look fine in 2-D, but look spectacular in three dimensions. They evoke the sense of wonder for which previous 3-D films have strived and failed. Visually, Pi shares space with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Then there's Pi's promise that his story will make the hearer believe in God.

Apparently, the critic at The Village Voice found that the film (like the novel) stacked its theological deck. I say, while not as complex as the book (and open to the same criticisms), the answer provided to the question of God's existence is far more ambiguous than that critic may have realized. The ending won't surprise those who have read the novel, but it manages to capture something of that ending's wonder and mind-warpery.

Of course, the film becomes more overt than the novel when explaining the possible significances of the final revelations. This lent to the proceedings a tedious and unnecessary quality. Pi's reflections on spirituality seem overall less like an individual's thoughts and more like pontifications when placed in this cinematic context.

Keep eyes and mind open, however. I don't share Pi's apparent conclusions, but I am pleased to follow the journey that led him there.

Directed by Ang Lee
Written by David Magee from the novel by Yann Martel
Cinematography by Claudio Miranda

Cast
Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel
Irrfan Khan as Pi Patel (adult)
Ayush Tandon as Pi Patel (twelve years)
Gautam Belur as Pi Patel (five years)
Adil Hussain as Santosh Patel
Tabu as Gita Patel
Ayan Khan, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli, and Vibish Svakumar as Ravi Patel
Rafe Spall as novelist
Gérard Depardieu as ship's cook
Shravanthi Sainath as Anandi
James Saito as older investigator
Jun Naito as younger investigator
Four tigers and a vast number of f/x people as Richard Parker

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