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Life of Pi (2012)

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 3/12/2012

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 3/17/2013


As we all know, you can't judge a book by its cover. You also can't judge a book by its plot synopsis. Due to the fact that I'm always writing movie reviews, I haven't had the time to read a book for pleasure in over a decade. But, I still peruse book reviews from time-to-time. I clearly remember when Life of Pi by Yann Martel was receiving a lot of buzz by in 2002. I saw several articles on it and the summary was always something like, "The story of an Indian boy who is marooned at sea with a tiger." It was often that and little else. Having been exposed to some overly arty books, I assumed that the novel was all metaphor and symbolism and no story. When it was announced that a feature film version of the book was being made, I doubted that anyone could make anything out of such a thin plot. But, as the movie was released in 2012, and as awards season neared, I began to see more clips from the film and realized that there may be more to it than I was lead to believe by some review blurbs so many years ago.

Life of Pi is told in flashback, as a journalist (Rafe Spall) interviews Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), intent on hearing the man's fantastic story. The tale begins in India many years ago. Pi's family owned a zoo and his mother (Tabu) tended the botanical gardens. Young Pi was a bright and inquisitive boy who had a keen interest in religion, as he studied Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam -- much to the consternation of his parents. When Pi was a teenager, and on the verge of discovering love, his father (Adil Hussain), announced that the family was selling the zoo and moving to Canada (due to political changes in India). The family booked passage on a freighter, which would also transport the animals. One night, Pi awoke to a raging storm and when he went on-deck to investigate, he was tossed into a lifeboat, which disengaged from the ship. Helplessly, Pi watched the boat sink. But, he wasn't alone for long, as he was joined by an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger, whose name was Robert Parker. Before long, it was just Pi and Robert Parker in the boat. Despite the fact that the boat contained provisions, how could he hope to survive with a vicious beast in the boat? And would they ever get rescued?

Directed by Ang Lee from a screenplay by David Magee, Life of Pi is a very clever film. The story moves through many layers, working to reveal its true purposes. As noted above, the bulk of the story is told in flashback and the fact that we meet Pi at the outset, leads us to believe that he survives his ordeal at sea. But, instead of jumping right into that story, we learn about young Pi's adventures with his brother and his journey into religion. These scenes may seem inconsequential at first, but they are very important in setting up what kind of person Pi is and how important his family is to him.

Once the boat sinks, the film becomes more of an adventure story, and it has the feel of a more old-fashioned story, like The Black Stallion. The movie takes some liberties with reality, but more-or-less we watch Pi battle the elements and a hungry tiger in order to survive. These scenes are exciting, but they aren't necessarily fun, as we watch Pi truly suffer. But, not unlike when Forrest Gump was able to see the stars in Vietnam, there are moments when Pi can appreciate the true beauty of the nature around him. One thing that I really admired about this part of the film was that there is no anthropomorphism present in Robert Parker (save for his name). This is a wild animal, and Pi realizes that if he wants to survive, he must find a way to partially train the beast and form a truce with it.

The third act continues to play everything straight, Pi and Robert Parker make a discovery which is certainly odd, and makes the viewer wonder exactly where the story is suddenly going. And then the ending arrives and Life of Pi reveals its true nature. Iím not going to give anything away here, but you walk away from the movie questioning everything which you just saw and you realize that the movie isnít about a boy trying to survive at sea -- itís about a persons search for faith and meaning in a world which can be very cruel and unfair. This isnít a sudden twist ending, as with Fight Club or The Usual Suspects. No, Lee plays this very wisely and allows it to sneak up on the viewer, until we find ourselves having been pushed out of the story we were watching and pulled into a completely new one. The result is very emotional and it will surely spark debate if you watch the film with a group of people.

That heady description may give some pause (watching the movie is like reading an AP English novel), but thereís still plenty to enjoy in the movie aside from the multi-tiered story. I often question the Academyís choice of Best Director, as itís rarely someone who I consider to have visual flair, but they made a good choice with Lee, as Life of Pi contains some fantastic photography. Using a mixture of real props, real animals, and some impressive CGI, Lee is able to bring the story to life. The use of color is great and the movie really give Piís adventure true scope. Iím often disappointed by ďOscar-caliberĒ films, but Life of Pi is a true gem which mixes great filmmaking, a unique story, and an ending which is a punch to the gut.

Life of Pi made me want to do experiments with bananas on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 for the most part, although one scene does go to 2.35:1 and the Disc carries a 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 34 Mbps. The image is incredibly sharp and clear, showing no overt grain and no defects from the source material. The colors are simply breathtaking, as they are bright and bold and very realistic. The image is never overly dark or bright. This 2D edition still shows a great deal of depth, as the objects in the foreground are certainly separate from the backgrounds. The level of detail is very good as well. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 5.2 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The quality of this track matches that of the video. The stereo effects are very good and show good separation. The track isnít show about having sounds come from off-screen. The surround effects are great, most notably during the shipwreck scene. This same scene provides excellent subwoofer effects, as does a second storm scene.

The Life of Pi Blu-ray Disc contains an assortment of extras. "A Filmmaker's Epic Journey" (63 minutes) is a four-part documentary which explores the making of Life of Pi through Ang Lee's eyes. The first part explores the amount of planning which went into the film, from turning the novel into a script to location scouting to casting. A lot of attention is paid to the on-the-water training actor Suraj Sharma received. We then see how the production tank was built. The piece then looks at the work with the real tiger, which leads into an examination of the visual effects, including the CG tiger. Next is a peek at the filming in the tank and how it was made to look like open ocean. "A Remarkable Vision" (20 minutes) offers interviews with the Visual Effects staff who show us how CG and real-life elements were combined to make the movie look real. "Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright" (9 minutes) gives us more information about how both a real tiger and a CG tiger were used. The extras are rounded out by a "Gallery" of concept and production art and "Storyboards" for seven scenes.

Review by Mike Long. Copyright 2013.