Pi Patel lives with his family in Pondicherry, India, where they own a zoo. Financial woes force them to sell their menagerie in North America, and they set out together on a long sea voyage. A storm savages the vessel and strands Pi in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Adapted from Yann Martel's beloved novel and directed by Ang Lee, Life of Pi is exciting and visually spectacular. Newcomer Suraj Sharma is entirely believable as Pi, quite a green screen feat, and the CGI tiger is g(rr)reat. Richard Parker's convincing appearance expands the possibilities for nonhuman characters, just as it once seemed that Steven Spielberg held dinosaur auditions for Jurassic Park and chose the best actors.
Having said that, I have two major quibbles. One is the incredibly awkward framing device of having the adult Pi telling his story to an aspiring novelist, who is white. Really? The brown guy's story still has to be validated by the white guy? What's wrong with a straight first-person narration? Secondly is 3-D. I know there are financial pressures, and directors want to expand their toolbox (Mom ... Marty Scorsese did it!). But every time somebody pokes a stick out of the screen at me, it takes me completely out of the story. And I wish I could have experienced some of the astounding sea and skyscapes without fussing with the focal length of my 3-D glasses. This film was diminished by gimcrackery.
Life of Pi is The Jungle Book in a boat, with the conflict boiled down to the life and death struggle between Mowgli and Sher Khan. Martel's novel is read in some schools, and I salute Lee for crafting a PG-rated film about a boy and a savage carnivore, eminently suitable for older children, which doesn't shy away from the big questions of faith, anthropomorphizing animal companions and humanity's own savage nature.
This article appeared in print with the headline "In the same boat."