Sometimes a film comes along that is not only entertaining but illuminating beyond the expectations of the viewer; such is the case with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which takes us on a fantastical journey but also leaves us with profound and lasting impressions about our place in the universe. The ending may also leave you with more questions than answers, but sometimes that is infinitely more satisfying than the majority of predictable movies out there.
The story is told in flashback by the adult Pi (Irraf Khan) who relates the tale to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) who wants to use Pi’s tale for a book. Pi is very philosophical about his experience, and he tells the writer that if he listens to the story he will “believe in God.”
The first thing one has to get past is the fact that the second most important character in the film – an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (so named by a confused ticket clerk in a train station) – is a CGI wonder that is amazingly conceived. If you dismiss this truth as part of the fictional world Lee creates in the film, and you accept the tiger as a reality on that boat, then you are in for a rare and precious cinematic treat.
Pi (played by Suraj Sharma for the most extended flashback part of the film) is a 16 year old boy who is on a passage to Canada from India aboard a Japanese owned vessel. He is with his parents and brother and they are on their way to a new life. With them are some of their remaining zoo animals. Pi’s father was forced to sell his zoo because of problems with the government, and Pi is at first unhappy about leaving India and all that he has ever known.
We learn that Pi was named Piscine Molitor Patel after a swimming pool his father liked in Paris. The name causes the young Pi (Ayush Tandon) trouble in school, with his classmates calling him “Pissing Patel,” until he earns their respect by explaining his name is “Pi” like the numerical term (which goes on infinitely). After this he is known as simply Pi, but the fact that his name connects to water is apropos considering his destiny.