The Life of Pi: Allegory in 3D

Yann Martel’s book club darling Life of Pi was long considered unfilmable because of the esoteric nature of the storytelling–and the starring role of a big tiger. But Taiwanese-born director Ang Lee not only took on the challenge, he did it in 3D.

The story concerns an Indian man who has quite a whopper of a seagoing tale to tell. Pi narrates his tale to a blocked writer, a framing device that unfortunately robs Pi’s plight of some of its urgency since we know he survives. The question mostly becomes “What happened to Richard Parker, the tiger?”


Don’t worry. I’m not giving away any details that aren’t announced right upfront. Pi tells us about the tiger and how he got his name, and about himself and his name, and his parents’ backstory and how he became polytheistic, etc. The filmic dream suffers from that bugaboo of book-to-screen adaptations; voice-over narration. I’m never sure why screen adapters do this. Film is a visual medium. Why not show us what the novel describes?

The movie also tries hard to make sure you get that it’s about Really Deep Truths. As with most stories that shout their thematic aspirations from the mountaintops, that part falls flat.

Where the film succeeds is in the lyric, gorgeous visuals and the gripping survival-at-sea sequences. Lee uses 3D the way it was meant to be used, to enhance and deepen the story rather than to flash cool stuff in our faces.

Suraj Sharma, the young actor who plays Pi as a teen, is extraordinary and his ability to play the emotional truth at the core of the fantastical events is another big reason the movie succeeds.

Was I swept up in the drama? Yes. Did Pi’s story fill me with transcendent spiritual ecstasy? Not so much. But it did reaffirm my undying faith in the power of storytelling.
4 out of 5 stars
Previously, on Ang Lee
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
The perfect match of Lee’s careful, restful directing with the genteel, Austenian subject matter.
5 out of 5 stars

Ice Storm (1997)
Perfectly-controlled direction and form-meets-content in the story of icy 70s suburbanites trying to thaw themselves and feel alive.
4 out of 5 stars

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The wire-fu is awesome as are Michelle Yeoh and Chow-Yun Fat. But the story gets hijacked midway through by the saucy young girl and her less-interesting adventures.
3.5 out of 5 stars

Hulk (2003)
You can’t accuse the daring man of being in a rut, but unfortunately, this superhero adaptation is airless and disjointed, one of the few movies I’ve ever turned off without watching the end.
1 out of 5 stars

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
“Masterpiece” is not hyperbole as Lee’s restraint allows the fiery love story at the center to play out in quiet, elegaic, and devastating scenes.
5 out of 5 stars

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2 Responses to The Life of Pi: Allegory in 3D

  1. Aw, come on, Ang Lee’s Hulk was awesome! Split screens, a Shakespearian-esque fatherson drama. Jennifer Connolly. For shame.


    • Chris Devlin says:

      Much as I, too, lurve Jennifer Connolly, nothing could save this stilted, stodgy movie for me. The cornball Bill Bixby TV series was way better. At least I felt something watching that.

      I wish Joss or Jon Favreau would make a Hulk with Mark Ruffalo. He was great.


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