Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” was this year’s winner for most Oscars won by a single movie, garnering Best Direction for Lee, Best Visual Effects for University grad Bill Westenhofer ’90, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. The film has also been a runaway popular success, both for fans of Yann Martel’s fantastic novel of the film and first-timers to Pi’s heartwarming story.
The story of “Life of Pi” is told through the process of an interview conducted by a Canadian journalist with the grown-up title character. It opens with the somewhat fantastical beginnings of Pi Patel in Pondicherry, India. Named after an uncle’s favorite swimming pool in Paris (“piscine” is French for swimming pool), our young protagonist takes early action to end the unfortunate homophonic nickname assigned him by his peers, “Pissing.” Instead, he dubs himself “Pi,” invoking the immense mathematical figure to reinforce the new moniker, a choice with obvious repercussions for the film’s title as well.
That established, we are walked through Pi’s unusual childhood, a curious mix of zoology and theology. His father runs the failing Pondicherry Zoo, where we meet the other main character, the tiger Richard Parker, (so named for a comical clerical error). Pi adopts three different religions: his native Hinduism, Christianity and Muslim. Despite many jokes at his expense for taking up (simultaneously) three incompatible religions, Pi remains unperturbed by his unusual situation and continues practicing all three. The family moves from India after the zoo goes under, so they book passage for themselves and some of their animals on a Japanese steamship. A fateful storm sinks the ship, and Pi, a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and Richard Parker find themselves sharing a lifeboat.
What ensues comprises the majority of the film. As Pi’s skin darkens in the sun and he rapidly loses weight, he also deals with the very real danger of life. These dangers include not only life in a lifeboat on the open sea, but also sharing living quarters with a tiger. An important scene from the beginning of the film serves as a reminder that Richard Parker, regardless of the natural desire to personify him, is very much a dangerous wild animal. This fact is borne carefully in mind, as Pi and Richard Parker attempt, if not to become friends, at least coexist in relative peace under their unpredictable circumstances.
“Life of Pi” is probably one of the most visually beautiful films ever made. Lee’s tasteful use of 3D is purely an addition to the already sweeping imagery of the open sea and skyline. Many readers of “Life of Pi” would probably write the book off as unfilmable, myself among them, but Lee has defied us all, making a film that closely preserves the inexhaustible joie de vivre of the original work. The terrific ending is as jaw-dropping as the first time you heard about it, which is a relief for fans of the book.
“Life of Pi” begins with our journalist coming in search for a “story that will make you believe in God.” Whatever you believe in, though, “Life of Pi” is a truly wonderful film that I doubt many people would regret having seen.