Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stunning Cinematography and 3D Can't Save This Film From Feeling Lifeless to Us: Our Review of "Life of Pi" (2012)

Directed By: Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain

Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Rating: PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril

Run Time: 2 hour, 7 minutes

Synopsis: When Pi Patel (Sharma) and his family travel by freighter across the Pacific to move their zoo animals to Canada, a large storm sinks their ship, leaving Pi as the only human survivor. Stranded at sea for almost a year and only a dangerous Bengal tiger as his companion, Pi battles with the faith he lost as a child while struggling with the elements to stay alive.


Andrew: Hello readers! Earlier this week Sarah and I caught a matinee showing of the new film adaptation of Yann Martel's immensely popular 2001 novel, Life of Pi, directed by Academy Award winner Ang Lee. Told through flashbacks, the film is about the survival of an Indian teenager named Pi (short for Piscine, named after a French swimming pool, natch) who gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean after the cargo freighter his family’s zoo was being transported on sinks, with his only company for 227 days out on the sea is a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

This was a film whose trailer we've seen numerous times; it’s one that I don’t think either one of us was necessarily excited about seeing, though I did want to see it because it was shot in 3D, not post-converted. Ang Lee has said numerous times that he didn't think “Life of Pi” was a filmable book until he decided to give it a shot in 3D.

So that’s why I wanted to see it, but I know you weren’t too particularly jazzed about seeing this one. Now that we've seen it, what did you think of Life of Pi?

Sarah: I’m still a wondering a little bit what all the fuss was about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful movie. It’s beautiful. But like Avatar, most of the movie’s stock seems to ride on the special effects and the 3D. I wasn’t blown away. I thought that the story was…not weak…I just never read the book, it never appealed to me, and it still doesn’t appeal to me. It’s not like I want to rush home and read the book now.

I don’t know. It was pretty, but that’s about all I can say about how I truly feel about Life of Pi. Sorry, but it’s true.

Life of Pi, based on the novel of the same name, largely takes place on or around a lifeboat adrift in the
Pacific where Pi Patel must survive the elements and a tiger named Richard Parker.

A: I will say there was definitely more substance to it than I had expected, because almost all of the marketing for this film focuses on Pi being stranded at sea with the tiger. You see some sequences like the ship wreck, and a whale breaching and splashing down in the middle of the night, stuff like that in the trailers and commercials.

But there is a WHOLE lot more to this movie than just the stranded at sea parts. It actually takes quite a while for the movie to get to the shipwreck. It shows Pi’s childhood and why he practices multiple religions – Buddhism, Catholicism and Islam, for the record…

S: And he teaches Judaism at the university he works at as an adult, so he’s a kind of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to religion, which is something his father was never too keen on we discover. I actually preferred the pre-shipwreck moments of this movie.

A: Yeah, I was actually pretty interested in Pi’s upbringing and his experiences before he gets stranded at sea. As we said earlier, the film is actually set in the present day and is told by a grown-up Pi telling his amazing story to a writer who’s looking for a book to write. It’s all told through flashback, and I thought all of those parts worked really well.

I might have been more interested in seeing this if the marketing had lent itself to telling you this was how the movie was going to be presented and that there was more to it than just a boy and a tiger stuck in a lifeboat. All I thought the movie was going to be about was the shipwreck and being stranded at sea, but there’s actually a lot more to it than that.

So I liked those aspects. I didn't NOT like the large section where Pi is stranded in the Pacific Ocean. It’s just that…it was…kind of boring at times. And I understand the basic idea is that, as a child Pi believed in all these religions and different gods, and there’s an event that takes place when he’s a child involving the tiger where his father tries to teach him a lesson about God and Pi loses his faith. So the shipwreck and his travails has a profound effect on him and brings him back to the person he was. I get that. It just takes a really long time for all those events to transpire and it risked losing the audience’s interest in being such a slow movie.

S: And I understand being lost at sea…there would be times of intense boredom and times of danger and they presented that perfectly. And Pi mentions in the movie that he starts to lose grasp between dream and reality and you kind of got that with the breathing island part, and how being lost at sea and starving and dehydrated would mess with your head. Being lost at sea that long your mind would start to block certain things out.

(MINOR SPOILER ALERT) I didn't like how at the end they kind of pull a switch on you, where everything you thought you knew throughout the entire movie might not have been the truth. That bothers me a little bit because it’s…it’s like a cop-out to me. I’m sure that’s how the book was written, and I understand that Pi had to make his story believable for everyone else, but I felt like the movie really copped out.

A: I didn't really mind that, because it sort of reminded me of what’s called the Unreliable Narrator, where at some point in the film, show or book the audience realizes that the credibility of whoever has been narrating might be compromised. Think of it like a show we love, How I Met Your Mother, and how it’s structure is built around an older Ted telling his kids’ the namesake of the show. It’s told in flashback and he sometimes misremembers something, he mixes things ups or gets things wrong, and it messes with what he’s telling you.

Fun fact! It's not just a boy and a tiger on a boat! The whole movie is told in flashback between an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, right) to a nameless  writer (Rafe Spall, left). Andrew liked the Unreliable Narrator aspect of this, while Sarah did not.

It’s not that I thought this movie or the book are trying to mess with us, but I like the idea of maybe the story that Pi is telling the writ - the version with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the tiger all making it on the lifeboat – maybe that didn’t actually happen and the story he tells some investigators is what really happened. But he likes to believe the animals were who he survived and nearly died with. I like that possibility. (END OF MINOR SPOILER ALERT)

That said, I do know for a fact that the movie’s ending is the same as the book’s because I’ve read some reviewers say that they didn't like the book’s ending and were upset that the movie kept the same one.

S: See and I appreciate that. I do appreciate that Ang Lee stayed so faithful to the book. It’s probably one of the many reasons so many people love the book, because it was a huge hit. For him to stay true to the book I felt was important. But yeah…it dragged. Parts that were cool were cool purely from a picturesque standpoint. It was beautiful and fun to look at.

A: And that’s something I was about to ask you. So you weren't a big fan of the actual plot or the pace of the movie, but you have to admit that it was a fantastic looking movie and that the CGI and 3D is some of the best that has ever been made for film.

S: I have to say, there were definitely times that they used a real tiger, but the times that they didn't it was incredibly hard to tell the difference.

A: I want to say I read somewhere that most of the time it was a CGI tiger, and one of the rare times, if not the only time, it was real was the scene where the tiger is swimming in the ocean.

S: That’s crazy. That’s what I felt was the most impressive part, was the CGI used, particularly for the tiger. Everything else I felt was pretty derivative of Avatar, like the glowing ocean and island. But I felt the tiger was super impressive.

A: Yeah, for the most part I never questioned the idea that Pi - and in turn the actor who plays him, Suraj Sharma - was actually in a lifeboat with a real tiger. So for that I have to give them mad props.

I wouldn't say that the glowing stuff and ethereal looking things was derivative, because there are real things like that in nature. It’s more like James Cameron took things from our world and put them in an exaggerated form in his world of Pandora. So I won’t bash the movie for that. I will say that scenes like that look fantastic. The glowing at night, the jellyfish, the flying fish that barrage the boat…it all looks amazing. It’s just a beautiful film to watch, which makes up for the lack of excitement though most of it.

If we hadn't seen this in 3D? I think I would have hated this film, because it really does give it another dimension.

S: I think Ang Lee was right. If they just made this a 2D movie, there’s not a whole lot going on for it unless you were a fan of the book.

If you’re a big fan of 3D, this is one you definitely need to see in theatres. Don’t go in to it with high expectations of being blown away by the story. It has its demographic…

A: It’s very faith-based. It’s highly influenced by religion; it has a lot to do with Pi’s struggle with his faith…

S: And with himself.

A: And with the elements of being stranded at sea, absolutely. It’s a good survival movie, they do a lot of those aspects well. And I think the lead performance by Sharma is really good. If he didn’t have such a good performance, it would have been tougher to sit through this movie.

When we say survival, we mean like the unspoken aspect of the beautiful whale shot in the trailer - a large
whale splashing next to your dinky raft/lifeboat is NOT a particularly good thing.

S: Well he carries it. It’s just him! And he’s never done anything before! I did like that Lee used Indian actors like Sharma and Irrfan Khan (The Amazing Spider-Man). They did a great job and were believable as younger and older versions of the same person.

A: I will say a good directorial choice by Lee was recasting the writer that Pi is telling the story to. Originally he was played by Tobey Maguire, and they even went so far as to film the scenes with Maguire in them, and then Lee decided he didn't want a big-name star in such a small role as it might be distracting for the audience.

S: Instead they used Rafe Spall (Prometheus), the son of Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew!), who has been in some things and did well here, but yeah, he wasn't a distraction like Tobey Maguire might have been. The cast did a good job overall. There are some familiar faces but overall it’s not star-powered.

Overall, what did you think of Life of Pi?

A: It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn't my cup of tea. It’ll definitely get Oscar love. It’ll get a lot of nominations, and it certainly deserves them for the effects. It’ll probably even win for Best Special Effects. Probably get nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, but I don’t know if it deserves to get nominated for Best Picture.

S: I don’t think it does. Compared to movies we've seen and others that are coming out, no way this deserves to come even close to winning Best Picture.

A: I’m glad we saw it in the theatre and in 3D because this is not one I’d want to watch at home, but I am glad we saw it.

S: I didn’t like it but I have to give it props for the fundamentals. It’s technically well-done…

A: Much like Lincoln, it’s technically well-made…

S: But overall it didn't do much for me. I was bored by it, and that’s one of the worst things we can say about it.

FINAL VERDICT: If you’re a fan of the book or 3D, see it in theatres. Otherwise, rent it!

(Individual Scores - S: 3.5/5  A: 3.5/5)


  1. There’s a lot of beauty, a lot of inspiration, and a lot to look at here, but overall, the story takes over the last-act and sort of leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth as you’re leaving. Good review.

    1. Thanks Dan! We totally agree. And the more we've thought about this movie as the days have passed, Sarah dislikes it even more. We felt it was pretty hollow when the idea is supposed to be moving.