Life of Pi: Digital Kipling
A mystical story is magically rendered in Ang Lee’s latest masterpiece.

Suraj Sharma and tiger in Life of Pi (20th Century Fox)


Charles C. W. Cooke

[Spoiler alert!] All that having been said, Life of Pi is not without its problems. The ending is too blunt, and it both unnecessarily spells out the underlying mysticism that is the story’s guiding light and makes hard the tale’s soft endorsement of faith. The film’s denouement should serve to outline the fable’s open questions, not to answer them; instead, it rams Pi’s metaphor down the throats of an audience that will be hard pressed not to have noticed it by the ninth or tenth minute. Further, the tone of Pi’s eventual revelation — which is somewhat attenuated in the book — ultimately works against the viewer. I wanted to believe Pi’s fable; I had been convinced that I should believe Pi; but, at the last moment, my belief was taken away from me. As the Wizard of Oz doesn’t reveal his fictions — that is left to another character — neither should Pi.

This, however, is not enough to ruin it. Kipling again, in The Threshold:

They found one Breath in all things,
That moves all things between.
They proved one Matter in all things —
Eternal, changeless, unseen.

All its glowing mysticism aside, this, in essence, is the film’s message. As a child, Pi is chastised by his father for holding the naïve belief that a tiger might be capable of romance. Sentiment, he is told, is a uniquely human quality. Yet, despite the dire straits in which he eventually finds himself — spending months aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — Pi refuses to let go of his earlier conceit. Summoning unknown reserves of courage and ingenuity, he helps to keep the tiger alive and eventually finds a way peacefully to coexist with it; when hunger forces the vegetarian Pi to kill a fish, he apologizes profusely to its corpse before sharing its meat; and he soon comes to see himself and Richard Parker as being, literally, “in the same boat.” “If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker,” Pi says, rendering the tiger as both a crutch and a threat. By the time that Pi and Richard Parker reach dry land Pi has acquired both a responsibility for the tiger and a respect for the power of nature. And he is ready — and content, even — to die in the pursuit of both.

There is a risk inherent to the story that might best be summed up with the old line that “to believe in everything is to believe in nothing.” As a child, Pi invites consternation from his parents by following Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism simultaneously. As an adult, he admonishes those whose rationalist instinct leads them to consider only “dry, yeastless factuality.” Contrarily, Pi’s focus is on storytelling: “I have a story that will make you believe in God,” he promises the viewer. Whether it does or not is perhaps irrelevant. It makes you believe in stories — and in Hollywood, that’s all that really matters.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.