Life of Pi' a gorgeous, poignant trip

By Ed Robertson, atomictown.comNovember 25, 2012 

The story of this review is unbelievable: I am writing it from five miles above the surface of the Earth.

That's...because I'm flying. That thing that tens of thousands of people do everyday. It is a cramped, tedious, and too often odiferous experience, one that's so decidedly un-magical that scores of comedians have built careers around mocking it. Ooh, crossing the ocean in the equivalent of a cramped luggage compartment. All that and you get charged for a sandwich, too. Sounds every bit as rapturous as a trip to Hobbiton.

-- Local show times, theaters, trailer.

Clearly, we are a society that prefers being there, not getting there. Contrast the experience of flying with that of sailing across the sea -- a swooning, romantic voyage of poor hygiene, barfing over the rails, and buggery. But at least you could get up and walk around. There is a magic to a slow journey, a gradual passage into another place. That's on display in Life of Pi, a fantastic trip into equal parts wonder and despair.

Born and raised in India, a young boy named Pi has his world shattered when his dad announces they're moving to Canada. But as their freighter sails across the Pacific, it's sunk by a horrific storm, taking Pi's family with it.

In the chaos, he's thrust into a lifeboat. But he isn't alone -- the ship was carrying his father's zoo, too. A small host of animals has made its way to the boat with him, including a hungry Bengal tiger.

Life of Pi is adapted from the highly celebrated novel of the same name. Its source is a book of literary fiction, so it should come as no surprise that in addition to his incredible journey at sea, young Pi is also a student of three major religions, he's named after a French swimming pool, and that the ship goes down over the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the sea in the whole world.

Nothing about his life is pedestrian or less than delightful. It's a wonder he wasn't raised by penguins with gambling problems, or perhaps a circus of some kind. "Twee" is the word, if you're in the habit of using words that make you sound like a jerk. While director Ang Lee's work is pretty and assured, I found the first segment of Pi's life two parts charming, one part annoying.

Then, the ship gets wrecked up. There's something awesome about a giant machine getting whomped to pieces. As long as you're not in the machine, anyway, and it's not your mother or something. The sinking of the freighter is visceral, terrifying and gorgeous. Afterwards, the tone of the entire movie changes.

Yes, that's right, it gets vastly more realistic after teen Pi (played well by first-time actor Suraj Sharma) gets trapped in a lifeboat with a tiger. From this point, it's more or less your typical story of survival on the seas: fishing, dehydration, a colossal bioluminescent whale that ruins everything.

But it looks really, really great, making the sea and its life look like something out of fantasy. And Pi's efforts to deal with the tiger are logical and well-developed, helping to keep things grounded even when it drifts into markedly strange territory.

Then comes the ending. I won't spoil it -- unless mentioning the movie ends is itself a spoiler, in which case what have I done -- but it's pretty remarkable. The story's a bit choppy for my tastes, and I didn't think it ties together thematically quite as neatly as it wants to. But it's a dreamy, vivid, engrossing film, the kind of story you can easily get lost in.

Grade: B+

* Contact Ed Robertson at edwrobertson@gmail.com. His fiction is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and elsewhere.

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