Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience

Movies this fall is a bumper crop of film adaptations from literary sources. Two belong to the same genre of magic realism. While Midnight’s Children is more akin to realism, Life of Pi is pure magic.

Ang Lee has done it, filming what is considered the ‘unfilmable’. Canadian author Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel Life of Pi is an existential fantasy, a story that challenges the limitations of human reasoning and opens the door to the imaginary and the quest for the Transcendent. What Martel has succeeded in literary form, Lee has realized in this visually stunning cinematic offering. While I know book and film are two very different art forms, I am glad that screenwriter David Magee has stayed true to the spirit of the novel, which I think is crucial in this case. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s creative camera work is also essential in turning Martel’s imaginary world into mesmerizing visuals on screen.

The difficulties are not just transposing the philosophical ruminations from book to screen, but to keep the audience’s attention and interest for two hours when the bulk of the story is about a 16 year-old boy adrift at sea for 227 days in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Kudos to Lee for taking up this daunting task, a project of which several other directors had bowed out, including Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), and Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

The production has taken Lee years to complete. He had to build the world’s largest self-generating water tank of its kind in Taiwan to shoot his film, utilize 3D technology and CGI to overcome many obstacles, do extensive research, and above all, find an actor who is capable to be Pi.

Ultimately Lee found 17 year-old Suraj Sharma in Delhi, India, from 3,000 candidates. Fate has it that Sharma was just accompanying his younger brother to the audition. The next set of challenges for Lee soon follows: directing Sharma who has never acted before, and, coaching him to imagine there is a fierce tiger present at the scenes, for Richard Parker is a virtual reality.

As I watched the film, I could see Lee’s own tenacity reflected in the character of Pi. In fact, the whole process of the production parallels the thematic significance of the story: the essence of reality, the nature of storytelling, the role of the imagination and faith in survival and in life.


The film begins with Pi as a boy (Gautam Belur at 5, Ayush Tandom at 12) growing up in Pondicherry, India. His father (Adil Hussain, English Vinglish) owns the Pondicherry Zoo. The most impressionable lesson he learns from his father is, the tiger is not his friend.

Pi has a loving mother (Tabu, The Namesake), and an older brother Ravi (Ayan Khan 7, Mohd Abbas Khaleeli 14, Vibish Sivakumar 19), a typical older sibling who teases and dares. This first act of family life is a delight, and the 3D effect in the opening sequence is wonderful to watch. The original score composed by Mychael Danna matches well with the exotic context.

We soon realize the story we are watching actually is the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, Slumdog Millionaire) telling what had happened to him as a boy to a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall, A Room With A View), a story, Pi claims, that will make him believe in God.

Pi is short for Piscine. After the boy is constantly teased by his schoolmates with the pun of the name, he begins to introduce himself as Pi. He just might not have known how prophetic his name is. Precocious and earnest by nature, Pi embraces Hinduism, Christianity and Islam in his search for the divine. The value of Pi, the mathematical symbol, is 3.14, a number that goes on to infinity, which aptly reflects the boy’s heart for the Eternal.


When he is 16 (Suraj Sharma), Pi’s family emigrates to Canada. They set sail on the Japanese cargo ship Tsimtsum, bringing on board the zoo animals. One stormy night, tragedy strikes. A shipwreck sends Tsimtsum to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Pi alone is saved as some sailors throw him overboard onto a lifeboat. Thus begins the magical journey of life in an open boat. Pi soon finds out he is not alone, for there in the boat is a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan called Orange Juice, and Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. Soon there remain only two survivors, a 16 year-old Indian boy and a hungry tiger.

Lee demonstrates his technical and directorial prowess in this major second act of the film. He has aptly chosen to use the 3D camera. I’m not a fan of 3D, nor animal movies, but Lee’s usage of it makes what could have been an uneventful drifting at sea into an extraordinary movie experience.

What I read in the book jump out alive in magnificent visuals: the squall of flying fish, the gigantic whale shooting up from the ocean deep, the cosmic showcase of thunder and lightning, and the island overrun by meerkats. Magical realism in 3D, pure cinematic fantasy.

Lee’s style is minimalist: a life boat, a makeshift raft, a boy, a tiger, the open sea. Its simplicity exudes immense beauty; its stillness evokes quiet ruminations. This is not just a castaway, survival story. It depicts a close encounter of a soul experiencing nature and its maker. It also portrays an unlikely companionship between a boy and a tiger. Despite the loss of his family and the perils thrown at him, Pi clings to life with bare faith and the companionship he finds in Richard Parker.

The last part comes as a twist. Two employees of the ship’s insurance company interview the sole survivor of the shipwreck after Pi is rescued. Upon hearing Pi tell his ordeal, their rationale overrides any acceptance of the improbable. Here we see the thematic elements of fantasy versus reality, faith versus plausibility cleverly laid out. Like Martel’s novel, it poses a question that is open-ended, more for the viewer to resolve than for Pi to prove. A most thought-provoking end to a magical journey.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

This review has been published in the Asian American Press print version, Nov. 30, 2012 issue. Online edition here. (Hint: There you’ll find Arti morphing from virtual reality into real life… take whatever is real for you.)


CLICK HERE to read my Book Review of Life of Pi by Yann Martel.


Photos posted here are stills from movie trailer.

A NOTE ABOUT MOVIE PHOTOS: These images are used according to the Fair Use guidelines for criticism, comment and educational purposes. CLICK HERE for more information. CLICK HERE to read the Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Society For Cinema Studies, “Fair Usage Publication of Film Stills” by Kristin Thompson.


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

43 thoughts on “Life of Pi (2012): The Magical 3D Experience”

  1. Our daughter read the book and was describing it non stop to her dad when we were in Atlanta. I’ll have to see if she’s planning on watching the movie. I think it would make my head spin…


  2. I loved this book and was worried that the movie would be terrible. Thank you for setting my mind at ease because it sounds delightful. I can now look forward to seeing it eventually instead of dreading it 🙂


    1. Stefanie,

      I’ve seen almost all of Oscar winning director Ang Lee’s films. This one is probably the best in my opinion, in terms of the technicalities, aesthetics and the meaning conveyed.


  3. I got interested and read about fifty reviews of the book over at Goodreads and a few other sites. They were divided in their reaction, which somehow seems to prove the point of the book. 😉

    I have a dear friend who refuses to go to the movie with me because she hated the book so much, and another who went out and bought a second copy of the book “in case something happened to her original copy! That’s pretty divided.

    There’s one question I haven’t seen anyone address, and that’s what’s going to send me off to see the film. I’ll not even tell you what my question is, because at this point I don’t want it answered until I see the movie!


    1. Linda,

      Have you read my review of the book? 😉 I always say the best opinion is first hand. You know, even before I write my reviews I’d like to read as little as possible about others’ except the necessary background info. and cast/crew personal interviews. Just don’t want to be influenced by others but form my own first. Which means, yeah, skip my reviews if need be. 😉


  4. This was one of my favorite books the year it was published. It took over 50 pages to get interested, but it was well worth the wait. I loved it! Your amazing review has me chomping at the bit to see the film. I have a feeling it won’t be a disappointment.


    1. Les in NE,

      But then there’s the psychological side… too high expectations. But go with a neutral heart. I’m sure as a fan of the book, you’ll find this a worthy adaptation. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!


  5. I loved the film, too, Arti, though we saw it in 2-D. My entire family went with me on Thanksgiving Day. I think we were elven or twelve — but I was surprised to find the theater almost empty. I hope it does well at the box office, or at least well enough that movie studios will continue to support artistic endeavors such as this.

    I’m planning to do my part by seeing it again in 3-D before it leaves the theaters. Such a great story…

    Midnight’s Children has not yet arrived…


    1. Janell,

      O you must go back and watch the 3D version. I don’t mind seeing it again and enjoying it all over, plus pick up certain pieces I’d missed. Do come back and share your view after. As for Midnight’s Children, you’ll see what I mean by it’s more ‘realism’.


  6. Fantastic review, Arti. And it’s so nice to “see” you there on the linked published article. I’m hoping to see the 3D version soon. I’ve only seen Hugo and thought the 3D was well done but not necessary for the enjoyment of the film.


    1. nikkipolani,

      O thanks for going there and see me morph. 😉 Yes, just felt it’s time I need to show a bit more of myself. It’s hard to keep the privacy when transparency is also needed.

      As for 3D movies, I’ve watched two. Avatar and Hugo. Now, I’m not a fan of Avatar, I feel its 3D is a bit grandiose and gratuitous. But Hugo I’d enjoyed and felt it was really well done. Yet here in Life of Pi, the whole experience is totally different. I urge you to go and experience it for yourself. I’m curious of what you think.


    1. jeffro517,

      Welcome. And thanks for the link to your review. I urge you to read the book. You’ll have a different kind of experience no less memorable.


  7. Arti, you just made my day! Knowing now that the film lives up to the book is a relief. I will drag hubby to the movies! I showed him the trailer and he seems interested. He does get my penchant for reading first before watching so with movies based on books he has to wait. Fortunately for this one he doesn’t need to as I don’t intend to reread as yet, it’s all still vivid in my mind.

    P.S. It’s good to finally put a face to your name. 🙂


  8. Great reading. It doesn’t sound like it bothered you at all about the boy on the boat being older. That’s the one bit that bothers me BUT since it sounds like it was a zero issue for you, I feel better. Can’t wait to see those visuals!


  9. I said in your book review that I’d forgotten the details of what “Life of Pi” the book is all about, the visuals from the trailer was simply beautiful Arti! I will have to read the book before I watch the movie. Beautiful review Arti.


    1. JoV,

      Thanks! I did too, reread it before watching the film. Second time around I appreciated it much more. So it’s really worthwhile to reread before watching. It appeals differently to different people, of course. Hope your experience is positive. Thanks for stopping by!


  10. Your review is very astute. I enjoyed watching this film in 3D as I think it gave it an extra perspective, an extra dimension. I understand Pi searching for spirituality in the various religions – I have studied several and like facets of each – I like part of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism and Buddhism. Pi keeps his Hinduism though. The colors in the film are spectacular – the sea, the sky. The end can be what you wish it to be. I enjoyed this film very much. By the way, it was nice to see your picture in the Asian American Press. I have to confess, that the first several times I came to your blog, I thought you were a man – just because of your name, Arti – my French and Italian languages making a word ending with an i, a masculine word…


    1. Vagabonde,

      I chose the name Arti for it sounds gender ‘neutral’… like ‘Chris’, or ‘Jackie’. However, I know many may have thought it’s a male name. Another reason is that I’m a fan of Simon and Garfunkel, and S calls G ‘Arti’. So there you go. Interesting thing is, people after knowing my real name, in their emails to me still address me as ‘Arti’. This is where virtual has become too real than real life. Now that relates to the thematic significance of Life of Pi.

      Often we choose what we want to believe. Further, like the Japanese insurance men, what we believe to be real is based on empirical evidence, leaving no room for the spiritual or things unseen. I came upon this article today, in which author Yann Martel gives thumbs up to Ang Lee’s film adaptation. I’ve appreciated what he said in there, and in the story too… about the parallels between religion and zoos. (you may want to read my book review where I’ve quoted this)

      I hope the film and Lee would get some recognitions. There are just so many great movies this year, fierce competition I’m afraid. I saw Argo yesterday, and oh, I haven’t been in a movie that has driven me to the edge of my seat like that for many years now. And this even with me knowing how the story ends too.


      1. Had a peek at your comment above and saw you mentioned Argo. I just watched that a couple of weeks ago and wow what a fantastic movie that was. Like you I was driven to the edge of my seat, even though I knew surely it would end happily. I made me want to watch all movies directed by Ben Affleck now. I had doubts about him before (I wasn’t a big fan of him as actor), but now I’m excited to explore more. Matt Damon might be the better actor, but Ben Affleck could be the better director! (what do you think?)


  11. I’m really really gutted that Life of Pi will be out so late in the UK (20 Dec according to imdb). All the American bloggers have talked about it and I can’t yet join in! I don’t know why all films seem to take their time to come here. I haven’t read your review above, but I will come back when I’ve watched the movie 😦


    1. mee,

      I’m totally with you re. Ben Affleck. Actually I’ve been delaying to see Argo because I’m just not fond of him as an actor… and after all, I thought I’d known that episode of history since I was in Canada at that time. But after watching the movie, my respect for BA has gone up a few notches, albeit more for him as director, still not too fond of him as an actor. But that is one good movie. And I’m sure come Oscar 2013, it will be rewarded. But then again, there are just too many great films around this time.

      As for Life of Pi, i tell you, it’s worth the wait. I really don’t know how the release procedure is done, because for Skyfall, according to IMDb, all countries in the world almost have seen its release even before us here in North America. And of course, there’s Anna K. which we saw in Nov. a couple months after the UK.


    1. Ti,

      If you’ve time to squeeze this one in, I highly recommend you read the book. But, you don’t have to wait though, the movie may not last too long in theatres. Catch it when you can. 😉


    1. JoAnn,

      Since the movie is here already, maybe you’d like to see it first then get to the novel. I don’t know how long they will leave it on screen. But if you go, do see the 3D version. Come back and share your views.


    1. Cipriano,

      Welcome! Thanks for your kind words. The film is one of the best I’ve seen this year. Glad you’d appreciated it as well. Hope to hear from you again. 😉


  12. I loved the novel and I’m really looking forward to seeing the film. The story is so compelling and I wondered how they could ever pull it off as a film — I’m so glad to hear that it was a successful transition!


  13. Thanks for the review! I enjoyed the movie, although I wasn’t fond of the Yann Martel stand-in — I didn’t think he was a great actor, although it was probably a difficult part to play. The actor who played Pi had never acted before? Wow. I thought he was great. That’s amazing.


    1. Rebecca,

      Yes I agree he’s the weaker link. Rafe Spall is the actor who portrays the writer. He’s George in the 2008 TV production of A Room With A View. I read that at first they had Toby McGuire (Spiderman) for the role but apparently that’s too costly a choice. I’m sure they have budget and many more considerations when producing a motion picture. Did you read the book? That’s a must-read. Glad you stop by. All the best to you for a Happy New Year! (Closer any time now… Congrats too?)


  14. I’m ba-a-a-ck! I enjoyed the film too. I wanted to see it but at the same time wasn’t sure I’d like it, but it held my attention throughout.

    I like your description of its subject matter: “the essence of reality, the nature of storytelling, the role of the imagination and faith in survival and in life”. I think that sums up the book perfectly and I think the film did a good job of conveying that too. I went in a party of four: three of us liked it, one couldn’t suspend his disbelief. When I read the book, the ending made me laugh. The film had almost the same effect. “Which story do you prefer”. Love it.

    The 3D was nicely handled too…


    1. WG,

      Thanks for paying so much attention to my posts! I’ve enjoyed all your comments, as always.

      Life of Pi the film is a worthy adaptation, pointing to the ingenuity of the book, but also brings out its own, which makes this book-to-film endeavour so worthwhile. They perfectly compliment the value of each other. Having said that, I must admit I’ve enjoyed the ending in the book more, because it’s LOL funny, the part about the two investigators from the Tsimtsum shipping company. They’re a comedic duo. But not so in the film.

      However, what intrigues me most is not the ending, but the beginning, the prologue or what not that Yann Martel writes how the book came to be, and thanking the Canada Council for the grant. Remember that? Even that is a mixture of fact and fiction, a teaser. After I finished the book, I had to go back and reread this intro, wondering how much of it was true… and still don’t fully know.


      1. Which is part of the whole point isn’t it? In fact, I barely remembered the religious side of it because for me the main point was the role and power of stories. I think the ending reinforced that for me.


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