Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Story With the Tiger

I don't know about you, but I love a good survival story.  There's something about watching the endurance of the human spirit that just inspires me to be better.  I don't think it actually makes me better, but still it gives me the inspiration that I could be better.  I think that is why Cast Away, Alive, and other survival stories often are so well recieved by their audiences...people like seeing people win.  Of course, it's more than that...there's the sense of identification with the characters and the idea that regular people like us could survive under similar intense conditions.  However, not all stories of survival are about only the physical survival.  Some are also about psychological survival.  Take the film I just saw this weekend.  On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward survival story but at it's core, it is something much deeper.  I bring to you now, one of the most visually stunning films of the year and one of the greatest survival stories ever told...Life of Pi.

Pi Patel, an immigrant from India living in Canada, is approached by a local novelist who has been referred to him by his "uncle" (a family friend), believing that Pi's life story would make a great book. Pi relates an extended tale:  He is named "Piscine Molitor" by his parents after a swimming pool in France. He changes his name to "Pi" when he begins secondary school, because he is tired of being taunted with the nickname "Pissing Patel". His family owns a local zoo, and Pi takes a curious interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger ironically named Richard Parker (after a clerical error); to teach him the reality of the tiger's nature as a carnivore, Pi's father forces him to witness it killing a goat. He is raised Hindu and vegetarian, but at 12 years old, he is introduced to Christianity and then Islam, and starts to follow all three religions (when asked as an adult if he is also Jewish, he replies that he lectures in Kabbalah at the university). When he is a teen (and experiencing first love), his father decides to close the zoo, and move to Canada due to political concerns in India. They book passage for themselves and their animals (to be sold in North America) on a Japanese freighter named the Tsimtsum. The ship encounters a heavy storm and begins to sink while Pi is on deck marveling at it. He tries to find his family, but is thrown overboard with a lifeboat, and watches helplessly as the ship sinks, killing his family and its crew. After the storm, Pi finds himself in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, and is joined by an orangutan who lost her child in the shipwreck. A hyena emerges from the tarp covering half of the boat, and before long begins to eat the injured zebra, killing it. To Pi's distress, the hyena also mortally wounds the orangutan in a fight. Suddenly Richard Parker emerges from under the tarp, kills the hyena, and forces Pi to take refuge on a makeshift raft he makes from supplies. Realizing that he must feed the tiger to protect himself, Pi begins fishing, with some success. He also collects rain water for both to drink, and helps a desperate Richard Parker climb back into the boat after the cat leaves it to hunt fish. After many days at sea Pi realizes that he can no longer live on the tiny raft and trains Richard Parker to accept him in the boat. He also realizes that caring for the tiger is keeping him alive.

Life of Pi was considered an unfilmable novel for many years largely due to the fact that the main protagonist had to be placed in a lifeboat with a live bengal tiger.  How do you accomplish this?  Ang Lee, the director, has decided to use a CGI to bring Richard Parker to life and wow...does he ever impress.  The tiger looks almost real and in many scenes even frightened the audience (thanks to the 3D effects).  I'll admit it is the second time in my life that a CGI character has made my eyes fill with tears (the first being King Kong).  Performances are strong throughout and the visuals, oh the visuals.  Ang Lee uses the ocean like a mirror often and makes the world look endless and wonderous at the same time.  It enhances the fantastic aspect of the story while also keeping it grounded in a heightened reality that I found charming and totally believable.  The story is the real winner here though.  Yann Martel crafted a finely tuned tale in his original novel, and the film is wise to keep many of it's themes and questions alive in the narrative.  I shant reveal crucial plot points to you here, but suffice it to say that the story effectively challanges our conception of what is real and what is not while also showing that how we interpret our own stories is just as important as how others perceve them...and that the choices we make about our own stories can say a lot about our internal psychology.  Life of Pi is one of those marvelously universal stories that anyone of any age can enjoy and I insist that you make it a priority this Holiday season.  Take your friends, take your families...there's something in it for everyone.

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