It's been four years since Slumdog Millionaire took home eight Oscars. I found myself thinking of that movie because Life of Pi opens in India and the cast is predominantly comprised of Indian actors. Like Slumdog Millionaire, the movie uses several actors to portray the main character at different ages. In fact, the older Pi is played by Irrfan Khan, who appears in both movies.
The story is framed with the older Pi relating his story to a writer. We learn that Pi's father owned a zoo, and his mother worked there as a botanist. His father is fond of giving Pi advice, and one memorable lesson involves a demonstration of how dangerous tigers can be, and that they should not be treated like a pet or a friend.
Pi is shown at four different ages, but the bulk of the story shows Pi as a young man, so Suraj Sharma receives the most screen time. Like Cast Away and 127 Hours, the movie relies on one actor holding our attention, and Sharma does a wonderful job of doing just that. It's his first role and he had to show a vast range of emotions in order for everything to work.
The first part of the movie shows Pi's life as a young boy. We see him go to school, and ultimately fall in love. But his life (and the story) is shaken up when his mother and father inform him that they have decided to move the family to Canada. Along with some of the animals, they set sail for their new home. If you have seen the trailer, or even the poster for this movie, it's not a spoiler to reveal that Pi ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. I imagine that's quite a selling point, as a lot of people would wonder how such a relationship could possibly work.
Director Ang Lee overcomes the limitations of such an enclosed setting in several spectacular ways. It's fascinating to see how Pi tries to survive, as well as co-existing with a dangerous carnivore. The visual aspects of the movie are of the highest quality, and I would be shocked if the movie wasn't nominated in several technical categories. The tiger is convincing, but the visual effects also shine when we are shown some of the things that can happen at sea.
I think Life of Pi is a movie that should be experienced without knowing too much of the story beforehand, so I am not going to reveal anything more about the plot. Although I will mention that the ending is open-ended and leaves you guessing about what really happened out on the ocean.
Religion is an ever-present theme. The movie will ask you to think about why the events in our lives happen, and whether they are random or part of God's plan. But more than one religion is mentioned, and it's not done in an overbearing way.
The script is well-written, and is a big reason why the story works. There is quite a bit of humor, but it's smart and feels natural.
I'm not sure how many movies I have seen this year, but this is one of the best. The story feels fresh and unusual, and some of it is profound and moving. I should also say that a few of the animals are hurt or even killed, so be warned if you are sensitive to such things. That said, you would see more brutality on a nature documentary like Planet Earth.
Life of Pi grabbed my attention early and held it for two hours. It's more than special effects, with the screenplay and acting both standing out. I highly recommend it.