Life of Pi: Let's hope this kitchen sink floats
A teenage boy named Pi, shipwrecked on his way from India to Quebec with his family and their zoo animals, spends more than half a year at sea, "sharing" a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As you do.
I haven't read the book; I suspect I'd find it insufferable. The various chapters of the film have a fairytale quality I enjoyed — the flying fish; Richard Parker's vision — but that comes in large part from the visuals. If I'd had to supply the optics from my own imagination, I'd have tired of it quickly.
And a lot of it is tiresome, because there's too much. The main story, the flashback to Pi's incredible floating journey, is tricky enough to sustain, but to that is added the cutesy story of Pi's name; the story of the tiger's name (one, please; not both); a pan-religious quest that, while attuned to how children process that particular big question, is at the same time reminiscent of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Condescending, and therefore a mannered irritant; and a carnivorous floating island populated solely by meerkats. The island is meant to cast doubt on Pi's version of events, but casts somewhat more on Yann Martel's ability to self-edit.
The meerkat segment drew my attention to the CGI in a negative way; beyond that, it seemed competent enough to me, and in any case, in an explicitly Campbellian hero's-labors myth of this sort, you almost want imperfections. It's like a cave drawing — that they don't really look like buffalo is in a way their greatest beauty. Life of Pi as a story in general doesn't quite realize that. It tries heroically hard, framing device here, zebras pinwheeling underwater there, but it's at its best when it just listens to how a real person would be in the circumstances. "What are you looking at?" Pi asks as Richard Parker peers over the side of the boat. "Talk to me. Tell me what you see." The seven-pound self-styled Charlotte Bronson next to me on the couch spent the movie chirring at Richard Parker; how many times have I asked her those questions?
Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan, as Flashback Pi and Present-Day Pi respectively, do wonderfully with a great deal of telling over showing, particularly Khan, who's saddled with a crappy scene partner in Rafe Spalls. I recall liking Spalls well enough in Anonymous; he's inert here, to the point where I wondered if he was a last-minute substitution or something. He's bad, but in a tentative way that suggests a lack of preparation or proper direction. Weird, unfortunate performance.
But it moves right along; whenever you're about to mutter "enough already" or "swallow that bug and act the line," it's on to the next thing. It has problems, but it's thought-provoking at the least, and it's a worthwhile sit.
Tags: exposition fairies impractical pets of our dreams Irrfan Khan It's Log Life of Pi movies Rafe Spalls Suraj Sharma the bog of labored symbolism tiny grey cats Yann Martel