A story seeker finds a tale,
An enigmatic holy grail,
The life and times of Pi Patel
Whose father’s zoo and he set sail.
In Canada, they planned to dwell;
To India, they bade farewell.
The ship was sunk by storm and sea,
And Pi was tossed upon the swell.
Upon a lonely lifeboat, he
Was trapped with animals set free.
Soon Richard Parker was the last,
A tiger he could barely flee.
The two of them alone were cast
Upon the varied ocean vast.
Pi trained the tiger through the days,
Which helped the floaters to hold fast.
When hunger, thirst, and brutal rays
Reduced them both to spent malaise,
God brought relief to weary Pi
And showed him wonders to amaze.
Through taxing trials, he did not die,
And yet their closure made him cry.
Though other tales he could supply,
This story no one could deny.

After listening to Dev Patel’s life story in Slumdog Millionaire, Irrfan Khan obviously wanted to tell one of his own. He plays the grown Pi Patel in Ang Lee’s visually resplendent Life of Pi, one of the best films of 2012 (there’s one higher on my list). I and many others enjoyed Yann Martel’s bestselling novel, but few believed it could be adapted to film, much less adapted so faithfully. Combining seafaring drama and cutting-edge effects with transcendent questions about faith and truth, Life of Pi is a masterpiece on multiple levels.

In addition to Best Director, Best Score, and Best Cinematography (all well-deserved), Life of Pi won the Best Visual Effects Academy Award. CGI-heavy films are a mixed bag. Sometimes the effects are awesome to behold or else complement the overall fun (i.e., Gravity, Jurassic Park, most superhero films), while other films lose the heart and intelligence amid the eye candy (i.e., the Transformers films). The visuals in Life of Pi are jaw-droppingly beautiful and the CGI seamless, yet even with so many effects creating the animals, the storm, and the boundless horizon, they never supplant the film’s emotional center. In fact, the effects artists created a main character with their art; Richard Parker retains a realistic presence throughout the film, surpassing other amazing CGI creatures like King Kong, Smaug, and Aslan (whose first appearance in 2005 shared the same effects studio as Richard Parker).

Unlike most effects spectacles, though, the acting is Oscar-worthy across the board. Suraj Sharma found his first role as the 16-year-old Pi, and it is a crime that he did not even receive a Best Actor nomination. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Robert Redford in All Is Lost, Sharma carries the bulk of the film alone, playing off of creatures that aren’t there and displaying great range, from giddy foolishness during the storm to tremendous grief over his loss and hopeless situation. Irrfan Khan does the same, particularly during his conversation with Rafe Spall at the end.

Faith plays a key role in the film, and I appreciate the way it is frequently discussed without the least bit of derision from the filmmakers. Movies like Contact can confuse the filmmakers’ spiritual message, while Life of Pi offers a positive presentation of multiple religions while upholding a general faith in God. Though I personally agree with Pi’s father that “believing in everything at once is the same thing as believing in nothing,” a clear and compelling promotion of faith is rare enough in Hollywood nowadays that I can’t find too much fault with the film, despite Pi’s cafeteria theology.

The film possesses a highly ambiguous ending, deserving as much debate as that of Inception. Upon my VC’s first viewing, she accepted Pi’s alternate story as the “true” one and felt the film’s visual mastery was made moot by an unreliable narrator. However, I, like the characters, preferred the story of the film and considered Pi’s response “And so it goes with God” to be an affirmation that God favored that telling as well and indeed had it happen that way. It’s one of those “you choose what you believe” conclusions that leave some awestruck and others frustrated.

Had I seen it years ago, Life of Pi surely would have left me in tears (in a good way). My VC still doesn’t enjoy watching it due to the deaths of multiple animals, but I still find it captivating. Perhaps part of my fondness is that the early quirky anecdotes are reminiscent of a “Meet ‘em and Move On” film, though the movie overall doesn’t reflect that genre. Life of Pi excels both visually and emotionally, a book adaptation that matches its source material in every respect.

Best line: (the older Pi) “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”

Rank: 57 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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