Life of Pi tells the story of a boy who's given himself the nickname Pi and who is a curious and voracious practitioner of religious faith. Growing up in a verdant and stylized version of Pondicherry, that colorfully colonial enclave of French India, young Pi is raised Hindu and is observant, but also is in awe of the life of Christ and becomes a practicing Muslim. As the adult Pi tells us in narration, these were simply different outlets to god, alternate channels that basically brought him to the same general, touchy-feely deity. This is all presented as darling and optimistic and wise, and I suppose in some ways it is. Still, there's something casually obtuse about this fantasy of egalitarian religious harmony; I suppose it's an intentionally dreamy ideal, but it's still a little too saccharine for its own good. Anyway, Pi isn't into the dogma, instead he seems attracted to faith as an act of the soul, a kind of self-propulsion that guides him through life. That guiding principle is tested when Pi's father decides to move the family to Canada and sell the animals from the family zoo to start a new life. Pi's mother and older brother don't seem all that fussed about leaving this edenic place, but Pi is crushed. Partly because he's a teenager now and has a sweetheart, but mostly because he feels a deep connection to the animals. He talks to them like people, and despite his father's efforts to prove otherwise, he believes that there is something of a human-like soul in each creature. But, being a teenager, he's powerless to stop the family's migration, and so the animals are crated up and put in the belly of a Japanese ship while the family crams into one small cabin to make the long Pacific voyage.
Then things, as things do, go awry. In a scary and thrilling scene, a powerful storm sinks Pi's boat and nearly all of its passengers, including Pi's family, leaving the boy stranded on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, a frightened orangutan, a hungry hyena, and, he learns a bit later, the zoo's proud and fearsome Bengal tiger, Richard Parker. (Like much in this story, there's a cutesy anecdote behind the tiger's very human name.) Three of the four animals are quickly done away with, and the movie sets into its long stretch of boy and tiger surviving because of and despite one another. Warily at first but eventually, after much thrashing and roaring from Richard Parker and several failed training attempts by Pi, with a kind of appreciative understanding. This is a bildungsroman about a boy learning the hard truths of the world, its brutalities and its beauties, and coming out the other side of an adventure with a sturdier, if more modest, conviction in a higher power. In, you know, the divine. Some kind of big nondenominational supreme being that is neither benevolent nor wrathful but simply watchful. Really this god is a tool for centering one's life, a compass, a polestar. I can get down with that, I guess, it's a pretty nebulous, and toothless, concept, but the film treats it like some grand epiphany. It's not, but that a big-budget studio movie takes aim at such theological/philosophical windmills at all is impressive, and appreciated.