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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “Life of Pi”

Movies are made for the big screen, but you can’t watch as many movies as I do and see them all in the theater. It just isn’t feasible. And, to be honest, most movies play perfectly well on the small screen, at home. But there are films that really should be viewed in a darkened theater, on the largest screen you can possibly fine, and “Life of Pi” is such a film. If I could go back and see it at an IMAX theater, I would. That said, the film’s story and themes don’t always live up to its incredible imagery. And yet I’d like to watch it again, despite my mixed feelings.

Adapted from a highly acclaimed book that many people regarded as essentially unfilmable, “Life of Pi” tells the story of an Indian named Pi. We meet him at three stages of his life: As a middle-aged man, telling his incredible story to a visiting writer, as a boy who embraces Christianity, Islam and Hinduism and as a teenager, moving from India to Canada. Because Pi’s father owns a zoo, the family travels to North America by boat, with the goal of selling their managerie once they get there. One night, there is a terrible storm, and Pi (Suraj Sharma) ventures above deck to watch it. But the storm is big and dangerous, the boat capsizes and Pi eventually finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan and Bengal tiger. Of these four animals, only the tiger, named Richard Parker (google the name to learn its significance), survives, and Pi must figure out how to keep himself alive. He also commits to keeping Richard Parker alive, despite the threat the beautiful yet fearsome animal poses.

As a survival story, “Life of Pi” works really well. The storm is one of the best ever filmed, scary and fanciful and filled with unforgettable images, such as the orangutan appearing atop a wave like a lost surfer. The scenes on the rescue boat, which take up the bulk of the film, are also pretty amazing. The tiger is an incredibly lifelike creation, despite being completely computer generated, while the ocean is depicted as a place teeming with life — fish, whales, sharks, etc. One particularly stunning sequence is set on a beautiful island filled with meerkats; Pi is able to eat and rest and seems perfectly happy there, until he discovers that the island is carnivorous and will devour human inhabitants. So he returns to sea.

The island is beautiful and amazing and probably the most the stunningly immersive environment put on screen since the world of Pandora in “Avatar.” But its appearance also represents where “Life of Pi” lost me as a story. BEWARE! SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD! And this isn’t necessarily director Ang Lee’s fault. My problems stem from the source material.

I read “Life of Pi” some years ago, and found its New Agey spirituality somewhat irritating. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that one of the book’s key elements really bugged me. Basically, we learn at the end of the book that the story we’ve been told isn’t actually true — that what happened to Pi was far more disturbing, involving murder and cannibalism, and that Pi has replaced this grim reality with a more uplifting tale of uneasy yet fulfilling coexistence with a tiger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to read an entire novel and learn that it was all a tall tale, designed to teach us that hope is better than hopelessness, and that storytelling can strengthen us and give our lives meaning. One of the characters describes Pi’s story as “a story that will make you believe in God.” Well, “Life of Pi” doesn’t make me believe in God. Rather, it makes me wish that Yann Martel hadn’t written a novel with such a weird, contrived twist at the end. And because Lee’s adaptation is a faithful one, the film rubs me the wrong way for pretty much the same reasons that the novel did.

Anyway, back to the island: The island is obviously a figment of Pi’s imagination. And although fans of the book probably enjoy discussing what it represents and what it means, I resented the sudden detour into the “maybe none of this is real!” school of filmmaking. I have nothing against films that toy with our sense of reality, such as “Fight Club” or “Memento,” but “Life of Pi’s” tricks actually made me care less about the story and the characters I had invested so much time in. The ending feels less like a big reveal than a big joke.

Even so, “Life of Pi” is the rare movie that I actually like better than the novel, and here’s why: The film is such a splendid visual achievement that I found it fairly easy to ignore the thematic elements that bothered me, and just sit back and bask in the imagery. Lee is a director best known for his agile and sensitive handling of relationships and drama; his most acclaimed films are “The Ice Storm” and “Brokeback Mountain.” And though he demonstrated with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” that he can film action with poetry and grace, “Life of Pi” breaks new ground for Lee: With this film, he shows unexpected flair for creating unique and unforgettable worlds that linger in the imagination long after the end credits roll. In the end, the world of “Life of Pi” was very much worth visiting, even if the story occasionally made me roll my eyes with irritation.

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