LIFE OF PI Visually Impressive But Spiritually Lacking

Life of Pi posterBlu-Ray Review:  LIFE OF PI (2012)


Michael Arruda

This story will make you believe in God.

That’s what they say in the movie LIFE OF PI (2012), anyway.  I say it will make you believe in good CGI effects, but that’s about it.

The first half of LIFE OF PI, winner of four Academy Awards and now available on Blu-Ray, really does play like a spiritual experience.  The set-up is there for a big payoff, a religious/transcendent experience where young Pi and his ferocious tiger Richard Parker will ultimately bond and join forces in order to survive, stranded on the open ocean.  Trouble is that payoff doesn’t satisfy.

A writer (Rafe Spall) visits a man named Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) because he’s been told that Pi has a story to tell that will make the writer (and ultimately his readers) believe in God.  Pi agrees to tell the writer his story, and it begins with interesting anecdotes about his life, how he was interested in religions at a young age, and how he grew up at a zoo.

When Pi’s father decides it’s time to move, the entire family and their zoo animals take a trip on a ship which ultimately sinks in a storm.  Young Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself the sole human survivor.  He manages to make it to a lifeboat, along with some of the zoo animals, including the tiger, nicknamed Richard Parker.  Needless to say, the other zoo animals do not survive for very long.

It’s this story that makes up the magical adventure of LIFE OF PI, the survival tale of Pi and the tiger, lost in the middle of the ocean.

Visually speaking, LIFE OF PI is a rich and rewarding experience, and the Blu-Ray print was vibrant and colorful.  But in terms of story, I was left somewhat disappointed.  The story of Pi and Richard Parker is a realistic one, but for me, it was too realistic.  I was promised a spiritual experience.  What I got was a very human one.  I wanted more spiritualism, but ultimately, the only thing magical about Richard Parker is the CGI effects which created him.

The bond they share is steeped in realism, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the movie never ventures into childish Disney territory.  Pi and the tiger don’t become best buddies, and they never reach the level where Pi isn’t afraid that the animal will kill and eat him.   But since this is a tale which supposedly will cause those who hear it to believe in God, I expected something more profound.

The tiger is more a symbol of Pi’s drive to survive than just a fellow creature that bonds with the boy.  LIFE OF PI is about survival, and if that’s the story of God, then that’s only part of it.  God is about more than just survival.

I found LIFE OF PI full of spiritual questions but limited in the answers it gives.  Ultimately, it only answers part of the great question of life.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed the first half, the build-up, more than the second half, the pay-off.  The screenplay by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel, does a nice job bringing the character of Pi to life.  The retelling of Pi’s early childhood, his schoolhouse misadventures, for example, and his forays into multiple religions, is light and humorous, and sets the stage for what’s to come.

But what follows, the main part of the film, the shipwreck adventure of Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker, while compelling, never quite reaches the spiritual level promised at the beginning of the film.  It presents a limited story of bonding between man and beast, and it doesn’t provide satisfactory answers to its spiritual questions.

The most compelling reason to see LIFE OF PI is for its visuals.  Its Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects was well deserved, as was the Oscar for Best Directing which went to director Ang Lee.  The tender and sincere story no doubt benefitted from Lee’s strong guiding hand.

The cast is decent enough, but again, the real stars here are the CGI effects.

The story touched me on an emotional level, and I bought into Pi’s plight, his struggle for survival, his uncomfortable camaraderie with the tiger Richard Parker, and I was excited to take the spiritual journey with him.  However, it’s on the spiritual level that the film lost me.  It seemed incomplete, as if it didn’t want to go the extra mile and hammer home its points on life, religion, and God.  It took on these issues peripherally, did a nice job steeping them in symbols, but when push came to shove, it just didn’t get to the heart of the matter, which is, who we are and what our place is in the universe.  While we are small and insignificant, we are part of a bigger universe, but just what that part is, is less important in LIFE OF PI than the idea that we are part of something.  That concept seems to be enough for this story, but after such a promising build up, I expected more.

LIFE OF PI will stimulate your senses, move your emotions, and even fuel your curiosity, but when it comes to mystical matters, it’ll leave you stranded.


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