Life of Pi (review) & Adaptation

WARNING: spoilers ahead.

Life of Pi really throws a wrench in this whole quantitative analysis thing. On the one hand, parts of it are unnecessary, boring, and/or preachy. On the other, some of the visual effects, as well as the Shyamalan-style twist at the end, greatly exceeded my expectations and made the movie worth watching. So good news or bad news first?

The bad news: the first half hour almost made me turn the movie off. Of course I couldn't actually turn it off (or better yet fast-forward) since I needed to write this review, but some of you less indentured moviegoers may find yourself doing just that. The movie opens with (supposed) character development, which would be fine if it weren't for the undeveloped religious overtones. We meet Piscine (he's named after a pool) who goes by Pi since his name sounds like Pissing, and the introduction is enjoyable enough until Pi starts looking for meaning. We're treated to a crash course in Hinduism and Catholicism and Islam and I don't necessarily have a problem with religious movies but this setup doesn't go anywhere after the thirty minute mark. The only thing remotely similar comes in the form of a rather beautiful but pointless CGI sequence with no explanation or attempt at meaning. Then Pi reads some Dostoevsky and some Camus, then he finds love and has to leave her, and this all happens in less than 7 minutes.

The only explanation I can think of is that the movie is trying to pull more from the book than it can handle. Here we come face to face once again with one of my many filmic nemeses: adaptation. A common problem with adaptations of literature is that the different media can't provide the same amount of depth. This is inevitable. Books are longer than movies. So it should be obvious that movies shouldn't be penalized for simply being less deep than their literary counterparts. Problems arise when (as in this case) the movie presents a theme from the book and doesn't take it anywhere. The problem isn't that the movie doesn't develop Pi's religiousness as much as the book does, the problem is that it doesn't develop it at all. We learn that Pi practices three religions and then we're sent on our merry way to make of it what we will. More filmmakers (that's right, I liked Dune) need to be unafraid to make the admittedly dangerous move of cutting things entirely from the source material instead of trying to slim everything down to fit into two hours.

Okay, calm down, talk about the good news. First, the visual effects. Apparently the hummingbird in the credits sequence is supposed to be one of the amazing aesthetic feats the movie achieves, and maybe it took a lot of CPU to animate or something, but it is vastly outshone by some surreal sequences later on. Definitely brought my attention back after fading in the first act. A slight problem with so much of the movie being computer generated is that it becomes not only hard to care about the tiger with which Pi spends much of the movie, but also hard to invest yourself in the narrative generally. That said, the pros outweighed the cons for me here since I can suspend my disbelief in the most unbelievable of situations.

Second: as the movie progressed I found myself wondering, "Is there really a tiger on the boat with Pi, or is it supposed to be some sort of metaphor, like taming your inner tiger?" Of course there's no tiger silly, but that's not the only twist we get. When Pi first escapes the sinking ship he is joined by a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan as well as the tiger (Pi's family owned a zoo), but at the end we learn these are actually members of the ship and Pi visualized them as animals (most likely to deal with the trauma of the cannibalism thing*). Easy to understand why M. Night was one of the potential directors for the film. Admittedly I was sucked in by this twist, but I wish it had been executed differently. We learn this through Pi talking to the camera. Some flashes of the survivors as humans on the boat would not only have helped us understand the twist (instead we literally get the dude Pi is telling his story to saying "so the hyena was this and the tiger was that etc."), but also add an element of excitement and surprise (kind of like this scene - sorry if there's an ad).

In short, the first act needs to be cut for more thematic development, but the movie is largely enjoyable and the idea of taming your tiger should be fun for theory-minded audiences.

*This was an interesting displacement for me since for the entirety of the movie up to this point it was instead animals that had been heavily anthropomorphized. I originally thought this was to fit some sort of vegetarian agenda, but after seeing the twist I prefer to see it as foreshadowing.