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Through the Eye of the Tiger

Life of Pi (2012)

20th Century Fox

Hello! My name is Richard Parker, and I am a Bengal tiger. You may have heard of me, as I am the star of a new 3-D movie called “Life of Pi,” in cinemas now. The director, Ang Lee, has chosen not to feature my name on the advertising posters, although my face features prominently. It is time for me to speak up and tell you my side of the story.

The movie is based on a novel by a Canadian named Yann Martel. In the film, Rafe Spall plays a Canadian author who hears a fantastic story about a young man and me while on holiday in India. On his return home, he looks up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) who says that his story — which is to say, the story of me — will make the writer believe in God. After a long flashback sequence about young Pi’s childhood in a zoo in Pondicherry, India, I am introduced.

The sequence where I am fed a goat through some metal bars teaches the audience that I am a real animal and a real threat. Animals do not have souls, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) explains. Of course, in the case of the movie, animals do not have physical form, either. Mr. Lee has taken C.G.I. further than almost ever before to replicate me and all the other animals in fantastic 3-D details. You can count the whiskers on my face.

Then it comes to pass that the zoo animals must be transported to Canada on a cargo ship and sold. It further comes to pass that the cargo ship sinks, and the only survivors are a hyena, an orangutan, a teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) and me. We are on a small lifeboat, although Pi quickly rigs up the oars and life vests to make a little seat for him elsewhere. And then, we drift.

Fortunately young Pi is smart enough to realize that taking care of me will ensure his own survival. There are fish, whales and all sorts of other fantastical sights on the southern ocean, although disappointingly, since they are in the trailer, all the most spectacular shots are spoiled. There is good fortune, and there are disasters. By virtue of the narrative framing we know young Pi lives in the end. And since this is a family movie there are hardly ever any sharks, which is a relief. The movie looks wonderful. You could watch it with the sound off. There is never a moment where there is a moment of doubt in how the movie looks. The 3-D is even relaxed and naturalistic.

It’s odd but somehow all my glory somehow renders the movie a little flat. This is of course tantamount to saying that you don’t like the Mona Lisa because it is too perfect a painting, but something is just a little off. Perhaps it’s because we know that Pi lives, so my threat to him is neutered and so the peril is muted. Perhaps when anything promises to make you believe, a large part of the audience crosses their arms and says “We’ll see about that.” Or perhaps it’s because, when faced with a story as terrible and wonderful as Pi’s, the best way to react is with tactful silence.

Whether or not I, the Bengal tiger, have any real weight in the movie is a matter for much discussion. If the movie had taught us anything it’s that consolation is a human emotion, only possible with other people and not to be found in the world of nature. But perhaps, after so long in my presence, it’s understandable that the people who made a story about me wanted to believe that I shared some of their humanity. Right until the final shot the film holds its nerve. But that fault is completely forgivable. It’s harder to explain why the movie doesn’t leave the audience feeling more impressed. Perhaps the lessons on religion and philosophy were a bit too overblown. Sometimes a tiger is just a tiger, after all.


Opens on Dec. 20 in Britain.

Directed by Ang Lee; written by David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel; director of photography, Claudio Miranda; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production design by David Gropman; costumes by Arjun Bhasin; produced by Gil Netter, Mr. Lee and David Womark; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Suraj Sharma (Pi Patel), Ayush Tandon (Pi Patel, 11 to 12 years old), Irrfan Khan (Adult Pi Patel), Tabu (Gita Patel), Adil Hussain (Santosh Patel), Rafe Spall (Writer), and Gérard Depardieu (Cook).


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