****SPOILER WARNING***** I don’t plan on overtly spoiling anything here, but this is one of those films where no matter how careful I am with my words, some might still pick up on little hints that lead them towards working something out. So if ever you were to adopt the system of saving the review until after seeing the film, this really is that time.
The title character (played at varying stages by Ayush Tandon, Suraj Sharma, and Irfan Khan) is an inquisitive sort who wants to investigate and embrace all faiths, despite his more agnostic father’s protestations that this is no better than believing in nothing at all. His family owns a private zoo, but decide fairly early in the film to relocate to Canada by ship, taking some of their animals with them, including a tiger, named Richard Parker (!) whom Pi’s father had previously taught the boy to approach with caution and understanding that he is no friend of man. A freak storm hits, resulting in Pi adrift in the middle of the ocean with a few of the animals...
including Richard Parker. Gerard Depardieu plays a racist French ship’s cook, in a throwaway part (I guess he wanted to work with the director).
Being an agnostic atheist, I wasn’t especially looking forward to what I assumed would be a preachy, Eastern religion flick. If you’re into that kind of thing, cool, but it’s not really my bag, though at least most Eastern religions seem to be more about spirituality than strict adherence and acceptance of religious doctrines/texts. Thankfully, this 2012 offering from eclectic-yet-sensitive director Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm”, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) isn’t as black and white or preachy as one expects. In fact, one could even argue that the film (based on a supposedly ‘unfilmable’ novel by Yann Martel), might tell a few truths about religion and holy scriptures that some religious folk might strenuously object to (Though I’ve heard of several pro-religious interpretations of the film, too. Perhaps everyone sees what they want to see in it, I can only speak of my own take on it). Some will scoff at the film, and maybe even refer to it as an Indian “Forrest Gump” because it’s told by a guy on a park bench, destiny is sought, and there’s a big storm on a boat. But I think the comparison is a bit of a stretch, though I’ll acknowledge the film will likely leave some cold. You either go along for the journey or you don’t, and rather surprisingly to me, I thoroughly embraced the journey.
This is easily the most beautiful-looking film of 2012, it’s absolutely stunning, and at times it really does look like the illustrations of a children’s book. Although very little of the animal footage is real (some of the shots of Richard Parker are real, and the rest is at least based on real tigers, lest the poor young actors be sentenced to certain tiger food!), very little of the CGI is less than seamless. At times you feel like this is kind of a spiritual “Jungle Book”. For some of the shots where the tiger is moving, you can tell it’s CGI, and a moment’s thought would make you realise it’s unlikely that the tiger and the main character would be in a boat together, but that didn’t register with me at the time because I was caught up in the beautiful story. Overall, even with the motion issues, I think Richard Parker is still the most convincing and best CG creation since Gollum. Tigers are such beautiful, majestic creatures...but they absolutely scare the shit out of me, too. There’s one moment here in particular that I can guarantee only the completely deaf will fail to jump. I was also convinced that the orangutan was real, like all chimps it looks so human-like and expressive. Nope, it was CGI too apparently. Very bloody convincing CGI. There’s an absolutely stunning scene where you see a bunch of glowing fish underwater at night that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. This movie is more magical than a lot of movies from The Magic Kingdom! The weakest CGI, however, comes with some flying fish, which are pretty fake-looking and are also the one time that the 3D element reared its ugly and distracting head during my 2D experience of the film. So unnecessary. The storm/hurricane scene, however, is simply one of the best in all of cinema.
The film comes dangerously close to screwing up at the end (did I mention M. Night Shyamalan was originally chosen to direct? Just sayin’...), before actually becoming something quite brilliant and in my view, true to life. It doesn’t negate everything coming before it, because really, it’s only at the end that the point of the rest of the film is truly revealed. And I think both atheists and religious folk with maturity, intelligence and an open mind will be able to embrace it (the author apparently deliberately left the ending open to interpretation, from what I’ve read. I’ve also read a connection to Edgar Allen Poe that might actually slant in one favour over the other, however. Check out IMDb’s trivia section for that, it’s interesting). I might not believe in God, religion, or faith (though my Agnostic bent allows me to admit that none of us know anything for certain), but I was able to appreciate what this film was saying about those subjects, and maybe even found a new kind of respect and understanding of those who choose to believe (a belief that is obviously extremely personal), even if the belief is at the very least a mixture of fact and parable/allegory. Sometimes us non-believers (and to be fair, some believers too) can be awfully arrogant and intolerant of others’ opinions and beliefs. Hell, I’ve had my moments too, and ultimately what does it matter? So long as you’re not forcing your beliefs on others, let’s all just believe what we want to believe if it helps one get through life’s ups and downs. Some would argue that psychological or even spiritual truths are still truths just the same, and I’m not going to deny those people the right to believe such things if they need them to survive. This film, whether it is ultimately a pro-faith or atheistic film, certainly made me appreciate and sympathise with the other side a bit more, even if ultimately I don’t really go along with Pi’s preferred way of seeing the world, personally, or have his ‘faith’. I think it’s pretty telling that the main character in the film is keen on learning and embracing all faiths (though whether this includes embracing a ‘lack’ of faith as a possible option as well, I’m not sure). At any rate, the film will get you thinking and most likely debating (hopefully in a respectful manner).
If I have one complaint, it’s really only a minor one. Since some of the Indian actors are more fluent in English than others, I wonder if subtitles might’ve been a better idea. But seriously, that’s the nitpick of all nitpicking. This is such a lovely movie, a smart, thoughtful, sensitive, and questioning one, without damning one side or the other but instead letting everyone choose which side they personally prefer.
There should be more films like this as far as I’m concerned, despite my initial reservations. It’s more spiritual and philosophical than religious if you ask me, humanistic even (though certainly fantastical, too). It’s easily one of the top three films of 2012, and it’s the film I wanted Danny Boyle’s overrated and jarringly ugly “Slumdog Millionaire” to be. Hell, it might even be Ang Lee’s best film to date as well, as it was certainly a brave undertaking of such a potentially difficult story, and he in my view has unquestionably pulled it off.