The previews for director Ang Lee’s new film, “Life of Pi” suggested it would be a sort of “Castaway,” only with a Bengal Tiger. Zookeeper Robinson Crusoe on a raft. As it turns out, about half of the movie is just what was in the trailer.
A young South Asian man does spend most of the movie in or near a lifeboat after the ship, carrying his family and the animals from their Pondicherry zoo to Canada, goes down in a storm east of the Philippines. But there are two stories about what happens beginning with the storm.
Prepared to be confused? Actually the film’s events seem fairly straightforward for a long time. This very self-conscious narrative is told to us as an afternoon story recalled by the man, Pi. But first he explains, oh, let’s see now, how he got his name, why his uncle was shaped the way he was, how his parents got the zoo, about their courtship, about his own adolescent love interest, and why his family decided to emigrate.
Oh. And there’s all the stuff about his childhood interest in great religions, specifically the Hindu one, Christianity, and what is now called Islam. At the end of the movie it will turn out that this interest of his is the one bit of the film’s preparation that serves a purpose. In fact, the movie’s story is about religion—not about God or spirituality, but about the stories associated with the world’s great faiths.
When we meet Pi he is fully grown and living in Vancouver. He is telling the story of his voyage across the Pacific to a failed novelist who approached him looking for material. We see dramatized versions of the events of Pi’s childhood and of the first version of his trip.
So we see the cargo ship sink, see the lights remain on as it goes under water. Most of the visual displays of this pretty movie have to do with lights in or on the sea—a distress flare, luminous fish, and so on. But things aren’t pretty as the storm is going on and Pi is forced into a lifeboat which then drops down into the agitated waters.
An escaped zebra jumps down to join him, breaking a leg in the process. under the canvas that covers the front half of the boat, Pi will find a vicious laughing hyena and, eventually, the big tiger. A female orangutan floats up on what may be a raft of bananas. Only the tiger, named Mr. Parker, and Pi will survive.
Pi builds a satellite raft to keep himself safe from Mr. Parker. The man feeds the cat and tries to tame it. After perhaps ninety days on the water, they find an island inhabited only by meerkats, which look like prairie dogs. But Pi becomes convinced for reasons not well dramatized that the island itself is a carnivore. Certainly it is shaped like a reclining human. Pi and Mr. Parker take off again and soon land again somewhere else.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Canada Pi goes on to explain that Mexico Pi told a second version of the story, one less figurative but perhaps closer to objective reality. This version of the story is not dramatized. We do not see its events. But we are left to compare the first version to the literature of religions. And to make sense of a dribbling off of the movie story at its end.
To the extent to which “Life of Pi” tries to justify the ways of man in describing God, the movie is a well-intended undertaking. I suspect religion critics don’t scoff because they don’t recognize metaphor, though. Still, the movie is pretty to look at. And those critics are likely to be nature picture fans. Perhaps they will be attracted by the film’s advance publicity.