A feel good story with a meandering first and final act
Life of Pi has the right director from Ang Lee who directed films such as Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the right actor and the right team in special effects to actually deliver a story based on Yann martel's best selling adaptation that is emotionally contained as it establishes itself as a heavy handed, then becomes so visually engaging that it goes off the rails with a contradictory and saggy ending.
Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan plays the older self) explains his miracle story to a man who is inspired to write about it. lives with his family who owns a zoo near Pondicherry in India. The younger Pi (Suraj Sharma) often ponder about the true meaning of life and follows closely to not just Hinduism, but Christianity, Islam and Judaism much against his father's wishes. He and his family are forced to move the zoo to Canada as they face financial difficulties. The ship carrying the animals and the family suddenly enters a storm where it then sank. It seems that Pi was the only person on the lifeboat until a tiger named Richard Parker comes into his company. As the boy and his tiger try to survive while sharing the same lifeboat, they embrace each other and provide for their struggle.
You got to hand it to Ang Lee who has the guts to handle a story who can bring Pi's survival and a friendship with an almost CGI looking tiger to a poignant peak as well as bringing out many eye popping moments that you can instantly feel so emotionally attached and buy into their relationship. Richard Parker and Pi together helps him cope with surviving. The tiger designed is incredibly realistic that you're more likely to be jump scared making it easier to actually immerse.
There are also some intense scenes of the two confronting the wrath of mother nature. It's perhaps the biggest scenes Lee has ever done in his career not only because of those events, but because it allows him to frame certain scenes in interesting aerial and long shots. The middle act is visually pleasant than any other film in 2012 with the cinematography from Claudio Miranda the other highlight of the film.Even the 3D does boost the film's energy.
The performance from Suraj Sharma who plays the young Pi is really impressive considering that he would go into his spiritual journey.
Life of Pi is a tale of a boy and his tiger well told with some boring establishment of the characters but later the tale is being turned over by its own head with possibly the second worst ending in any movie for 2012. (the Devil Inside being the first) I can't go into detail of my gripe with these acts without spoiling the review. So if you haven't this movie, please stop reading at this end.
******* Spoilers begin here! *********
When the movie began, it starts with Pi starting to follow not just one, but five religions all at the same time against his father's wishes since he believes in science and thinks that actually advances society. This is a spoiler because this is where the film just gets into my nerves. I don't follow religion as close as anyone in and outside this movie has, but whenever religion comes up, it's not really as challenging as it thinks it is. This movie is supposed to be about overcoming struggle and bonding with other characters who are not your same type and all the movie wants to be is a look into existential beauty aiming to be as profound as it can get. These films such as American Beauty and The Tree of Life all have films visually pleasing to the eye, but decipher a tough slice of life and the consequences. Life of Pi however visually pleases the audience but unfortunately Pi's character constantly mention that he made it out because of God just cops out any standard the movie sets.
But the final half hour is perhaps what defeat the whole purpose of the film and also change the movie's intent. After Pi comes into Mexico, Richard Parker leaves and as he was recovering in hospital, officials from the Japanese Ministry for Transportation questions him about his experiences. When they didn't believe his on-the-boat story, Pi does offer an alternative one. It is about how he the chef from the ship, his mom and another person are the only people on the lifeboat; the chef was abusive (remembering how he refuse to offer any vegetarian meals and make racist remarks about Indians), trying to eat her off because he was hungry and Pi retailiated by drowning the guy. It serves as a more realistic metaphor for the actual story - the hyena being the chef, the mom the zebra and Pi playing the role as Richard Parker. Since these officials are more about seriousness rather than sensationalism, they believe on neither story. We go back to the present in where the current Pi asks the novelist which story did you "prefer" and he states that he liked the one with the tiger.
My gripe with the ending happens to be that Pi, having to reach the end of his survival journey, managing to make the whole film emotionally manipulative and turn the character to an unlikeable one since he tells the story to the officials that that was the tragic story. Lying about it is one thing, but when you ask him which story you prefer, it's not only baffling but it's also offensive to the audience in contradicting the events of the film that has already been portrayed having to be bought into the film the minute the film started. I may be narrow minded since I didn't read the book, but even when it actually happened and you have to thank "God" in the end, it is not only a great way to break the film's emotional weight, but it also confuses itself as a realistic film rather than a fantasy to which Lee actually shown and it's left to the audience to unnecessary interpret this as something else. Personally I prefer the story about him with the tiger because it shows the scenario and that's much tolerable than anything the film presents.
And speaking of "god", wouldn't it be a sin to actually deceive about your ordeal? The alternative story Pi tells betrays any sense of organic courage given by his parents, or his beliefs in any religion.
******* Spoilers end here! *********
With that said Life of Pi is supposed to lift up anybody's spirit but unfortunately it left me cold. While Suraj Sharma's performance and the duo dynamic between Pi and the tiger are the major highlights, it honestly less challenging when they reac any kind of subtext. But it doesn't stop me with what I really liked including the scenes with Pi and the tiger, beautifully lit and framed by Lee and Miranda that you're able to buy in the dynamic of the middle act.