Life of Pi is a visual masterpiece directed by Ang Lee. The action of the film is almost less important than the stunning scenes of the ocean and sea life, the carnivorous island full of meerkats, and the sinking ship. After watching the film, it is not surprising that it won the Academy Award for best visual effects. The incredible imagery brings the movie to life in a way that endless scenes of the vast ocean would not have. Besides the stunning visual effects, the most important elements of Life of Pi are characterization and conflict.
The plot revolves around Pi Patel and his relationship with God as he survives a ship wreck and spends 227 days on a life boat wandering along the Pacific Ocean. Did I mention that his only companion is an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker? Initially, four different animals survive with Pi–a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger. The hyena kills both the zebra and the orangutan, and Richard Parker eventually kills the hyena. After that, we see Pi and the tiger become unlikely friends as they learn to gather food and water, they battle another storm, and they discover a carnivorous algae island. They eventually establish a symbiotic relationship. Pi admits that Richard Parker is the one responsible for keeping him alive because the threat of being eaten by a tiger keeps him alert and tending to the tiger’s need distracts him.
Life of Pi uses characterization to make Richard Parker seem more human and show the similarities between him and Pi. Because impossible communication between a tiger and a human, most of the characterization occurs through external action.
In the beginning, we see Pi is a deeply spiritual boy. He loves learning about the different Hindu gods as well as the Christian Jesus Christ and the Muslim Allah. The events at sea force him to face God as he slowly looses hope of surviving but somehow manages it through divine intervention. We learn a lot about Pi while he is trapped on the life boat. We learn that he is incredible intelligent and resourceful as he builds a raft of his own to avoid Richard Parker. At the same time that he is terrified of the tiger, he is also compassionate toward him. We learn early on that he is a vegetarian, but I do not think we realize how much he cares for animals until he apologizes for eating a fish and gives Richard Parker food and water even when his life is in danger.
Because of the twist ending (which I will discuss later), we know that Richard Parker is a representation of Pi. He is given human-like characteristics. We see him scared as he hides under the life boat’s tarp. We see his desperately try to get back onto the boat after stupidly jumping out. We even see a glimpse of humor when Richard Parker sprays Pi after he tries to claim his territory. He comes very close to death, and, most importantly, he connects with Pi. Pi is his savior in a way. He provides the tiger with food and water and keeps him alive even at the most desperate moments. Through it all, Richard Parker remains strong and majestic in a way, and he helps Pi survive because he provides an outlet for him to focus on.
Most of the conflict in Life of Pi is between man and nature. Pi battles the ocean and the elements. He battles starvation and thirst. He battles Richard Parker. Pi even battles his own spirituality. Nature is bombarding him on every side. On top of that, Pi also faces conflict with himself and his will to survive, which brings up the twist ending.
At the end, we face the possibility that the entire story was an allegory. It creates a conflict for us in deciding which story was real. Each animal on the life boat represents an actual person who survived the ship wreck. The zebra was actually a Japanese sailor with a broken leg. The hyena was a despicable cook, the orangutan was Pi’s mother, and the tiger was Pi. The idea is that Pi created the story of the animals in order to psychologically deal with what happened at sea. In the human version, He watched the Japanese sailor and his mother die on the life boat, and ended up killing the cook. There is the possibility that Pi could not face what he did, and his subconscious fabricated an incredible story instead of facing the truth. It is Pi’s own internal struggle, and we are never told exactly which story is true.
I think the story we choose to believe has to do with our own spirituality. I think those people who prefer facts and logic, are drawn to the human version of the story. Those people who believe in impossibilities and are able to have faith in an outstanding story are more likely to accept the allegorical story with the animals. We see the Pi, the writer interviewing him, and the two Japanese insurance agents accept the terrific tiger story. Their belief in the impossible shows their own spirituality, especially when the writer reads from the report, “Mr. Patel’s is an astounding story, courage and endurance unparalleled in the history of ship-wrecks. Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.”