Life of Pi: Movie Review and Analysis

Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with an adult male tiger.
Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with an adult male tiger. | Source

Life of Pi 2012

Life of Pi is a novel by Yann Martel, published in 2001. In 2012, a movie based on the book and having the same title was released in theaters. Directed by Ang Lee, the movie has enjoyed both financial and critical success. Of all the 2012 movies, Life of Pi received the most Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. The movie was nominated for eleven awards in all, including Best Picture. Life of Pi movie also won a Golden Globe Award. It’s a beautiful movie, visually speaking, and it’s one that really makes you think. I’ve read excerpts from the Life of Pi book, but I haven’t read the entire novel. I’ve watched the film three times, though, and with each viewing, I notice something new that I had somehow missed before. Now, of course, I have to read the book, from cover to cover. In this article, I’m offering a Life of Pi summary, analysis, and general discussion. Spoilers are included, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie, you probably don’t want to continue reading this. And, by the way, you certainly don’t have to agree with my ideas, but they might give you something to think about. Below are my views and thoughts on Life of Pi.

Pi's home as a child:

A markerPondicherry, India -
Puducherry, Pondicherry, India
[get directions]

Pi grows up in Pondicherry, India, also called Pudacherry.

Life of Pi Trailer

I think you can see from the official Life of Pi trailer I've included that this is a visually stunning film. Remember, though, that the clip is just a superficial look at the movie. It was created in order to generate interest among potential viewers. There's no way the trailer can even hint at all the symbolism, major themes, and thought-provoking scenes. If you haven't seen Life of Pi, watch it soon as you can, and pay close attention. In fact, I suggest watching the movie more than once to really appreciate and understand it fully.

Life of Pi Trailer:

Life of Pi Characters

I thought the Life of Pi film characters did a good job with their roles. I found them to be believable, for the most part, and I definitely developed empathy for Pi. He’s really the only round, dynamic character in the Life of Pi movie. The supporting characters are mostly static, and they’re somewhat flat. Take Pi’s father, for example. He’s a no nonsense businessman, and that’s really the only side of him we see.

I didn’t enjoy Gerard Depardieu being cast in such an unlikeable role. I’ve always liked him in other movies, so it was difficult for me to think of him as such an unscrupulous character. Below is a list of the Life of Pi characters and the actors who played the roles:

Pi, as a child – Gautam Belur

Pi, as a young teen – Ayush Tandon

Pi, at the age of sixteen – Suraj Sharma

Pi, as an adult – Irrfan Khan

Pi’s father – Adil Hussain

Pi’s mother – Tabu

Pi’s brother, Ravi, as a child – Ayan Khan

Ravi, at fifteen – Mohammed Abbas Khaleeli

Ravi, at eighteen – Vibish Sivakumar

Mamaji – Elie Alouf

Pi’s girlfriend – Shravanthi Sainath

The writer – Rafe Spall

Ship’s cook – Gerard Depardieu

Buddhist sailor – Po-Chieh Wang

Priest – Andrea Di Stefano


Ang Lee and a movie clip:

Life of Pi Summary

As I already mentioned, this Life of Pi summary contains spoilers. You’ve been warned – twice. Life of Pi is a frame story – a story within a story. The present day action is about a writer who visits Pi in order to interview him for a book. The writer had previously met Pi’s uncle, Mamaji, and Mamaji told him that his nephew had an amazing story to share. Pi tells the writer his account will make the writer believe in God.

The story continues with the explanation of Pi’s name. The Indian boy’s full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, after a beautiful swimming pool in France. At school, Pi is teased about his name. The other boys call him “Pissing” instead of “Piscine,” so he changes his name to “Pi.” The shortened version of his name gradually catches on.

Pi’s father buys a zoo and gardens and fills it with animals. One is a Bengal tiger named “Richard Parker.” A hunter named “Richard Parker” had captured the tiger as a cub, while it was drinking water from a stream. He named the tiger “Thirsty,” but the shipping documents got confused, and the tiger wound up with the hunter’s name. Pi is fascinated with the tiger. He believes animals have souls. Pi’s father catches him trying to befriend the tiger, so he teaches Pi a lesson to show him the tiger is a savage beast. He allows the animal to attack and kill a goat.

Pi is searching for something to believe in. He’s Hindu, but he’s curious about other faiths. One day he enters a Catholic church and is given water by the priest. He asks the priest questions about the Christian God. Later, he explores Islam. Pi’s father frowns on his religious views and tells the boy that if you believe in everything, it’s the same as believing in nothing.

Pi takes music lessons and learns to play the tabla, a type of drum. One day he plays for a girls’ dance class and meets a beautiful young dancer named “Anandi.” She and Pi develop a relationship, but it doesn’t last long. Because of unrest in India, Pi’s father has decided to sell the zoo and move the family to Canada. Most of the animals will be sold in North America, so they join Pi and his family on the trip across the ocean on a Japanese freighter.

Aboard the ship, we meet the cook, a nasty man. When Pi’s mother explains to him that she’s a vegetarian and doesn’t want meat, the cook serves her rice and gravy. Again, she tries to explain that she doesn’t want gravy because it contains meat. The cook gets an attitude, and he and Pi’s father have a heated argument. When Pi’s mother takes her plate to a table, she’s joined by a Buddhist sailor who explains to her nicely that the ship’s gravy doesn’t have meat in it.

A few days into the journey, there’s a violent storm. Pi is thrown into a lifeboat, and the ship sinks. Everyone else aboard is drowned. A zebra jumps from the deck of the ship and lands in the lifeboat with Pi, but the animal breaks a leg in the jump. The next morning, the zoo’s orangutan swims to the boat and climbs in. Her son isn’t with her, and we assume he drowned. The prow of the boat is covered by a tarp, which has been hiding a hyena. The hyena comes out and threatens Pi, then attacks the zebra. Pi tries to save the zebra, but he can’t. The hyena kills the zebra and then turns on the orangutan. Pi is unable to save her, so the hyena kills her. The tiger, Richard Parker, comes out from under the tarp and kills the hyena. It also threatens Pi. During the night, the tiger consumes all the dead animals.

Pi, of course, is scared of the tiger. He makes a makeshift raft and attaches it to the lifeboat with a long rope. He finds water and biscuits stowed in the lifeboat and takes supplies to his raft. He’s fine eating the biscuits, but he knows the tiger needs meat, so he begins to fish. He catches a large dolphin fish, a mahi mahi, and kills it with a small hatchet. He cries as he does so. It’s probably the first time Pi has ever killed anything. Pi also gives the tiger water.

One day a school of large fish passes near the lifeboat, and the tiger jumps into the water in order to catch one of the fish. Pi goes from his raft back to the lifeboat, as it’s safe now without the tiger. The tiger tries to get back into the boat, but it can’t. Pi has a decision to make here. He can let the tiger drown and reclaim the boat, or he can save the tiger. He finally decides to save the tiger and drops a makeshift ladder over the side of the lifeboat. The tiger returns to the boat, and Pi returns to his raft.

One night, a large whale emerges from the depths of the ocean and leaps over the lifeboat. The commotion in the water causes the biscuits and the canned water to be lost. The boy realizes that caring for Richard Parker provides him with purpose. Pi decides that he’s going to reclaim half the boat by training the tiger to respect him. The boy uses a whistle, seasickness, and food to train Richard Parker so that they can exist together on the boat. The new relationship is tested when a school of flying fish lands in the boat. Among the small fish is one large fish, and both the boy and the tiger try to claim it. Pi wins the battle.

Next, the two companions are forced to go without food and water, and they’re near death. The tiger is so weak that Pi is able to stroke him. Pi falls asleep and wakes up to discover that the boat has reached a floating green island. On the island are pools of clean freshwater, edible plants, and thousands of meerkats. Pi finds plenty of vegetation to eat, as Richard Parker munches on meerkats at will. As the sun sets, the meerkats race for the safety of the trees, and the tiger returns to the boat. Something has frightened the animals. Pi climbs a tree to sleep, where he observes the pools turning into acid and devouring the fish in them. The boy opens a lotus flower and finds a human tooth. He realizes the island is carnivorous and knows he must leave it. The next morning, he gathers food and water, along with a supply of meerkats for the tiger. He loads them into the lifeboat and calls for Richard Parker to join him.

Some time later, the small boat reaches the shore of Mexico. As Pi collapses onto the sand, the tiger leaves and enters the jungle. Pi is saddened that the tiger didn’t even look back at him, after all the two had endured together. Pi is discovered by some men and is taken to a nearby hospital.

While in the hospital, Pi is paid a visit by two Japanese officials who are investigating the ship’s sinking. Pi relates his story, but the men don’t believe him. After thinking for a moment, Pi tells a different account of his months at sea. He says he was on the boat with a sailor with a broken leg (the Buddhist who had befriended Pi’s mother), his mother, and the ship’s cook. He says the cook killed the sailor in order to use his flesh for bait, and he suggests that the cook also ate the man’s flesh. The cook also kills Pi’s mother. Pi ends up killing the cook. They symbolism is explained here by the writer: the sailor is the zebra, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, the hyena is the cook, and the tiger is Pi.

Which account are the writer and viewers supposed to believe? The writer chooses the story with the animals. When he reads the account composed by the Japanese officials, he found that they, too, finally chose to believe the account with the tiger. The report states that the boy had spent 227 days drifting on the open ocean with an adult tiger. The writer meets Pi’s wife and children. Pi seems to be happy now, living with his family in Montreal.

On the lifeboat, Pi faces numerous life-or-death challenges.
On the lifeboat, Pi faces numerous life-or-death challenges. | Source

Life of Pi Themes

Life of Pi themes are numerous. For me, the main overriding theme was faith. Pi spent much of his childhood searching for faith, and when shipwrecked, it was faith that kept him alive. He kept telling himself to never give up. Of course, Pi’s faith is tested numerous times. His faith in God allows him to give his fate over to God, as we can see during one of the storms. I think Pi sees finding the floating island as God’s message that he should continue with his journey.

Along with faith, in general, we have the theme of God and religion. Pi wanted to know and love God, and he searches for a religion in which he can believe – Hindu, Christianity, and Islam. He doesn’t reject any of these, as he seems to like certain elements of all three. I think the author is urging viewers to find something they can believe in – something larger than themselves.

Another of the important Life of Pi themes is conflict. There’s man vs. man in Pi’s second account of his days at sea. There’s also man vs. nature and man vs. himself. Obviously Pi must fight for survival against the ocean, against the hyena, against the tiger, and against the island. The latter type of conflict, man vs. himself, is seen with all of Pi’s inner struggles.

Some of the struggles are directly related to survival, and Pi isn’t the only character affected. All the animals fight for their own survival, each in its own way, as do the cook and Pi in the second ending. I think most viewers are faced with a question to ask themselves: What would you do in order to survive? How far would you go?

The film also makes viewers think about truth. What is truth? Is truth always an absolute? Truth can be about one’s perception. For instance, let’s say three people witness the same automobile accident, each from a different vantage point. The three accounts of the accident will be different. Does that mean they’re not all true? A person’s “truth” can be personal, especially when we’re talking about matters of faith and religion.


A zebra winds up on the lifeboat with the other zoo animals and Pi.
A zebra winds up on the lifeboat with the other zoo animals and Pi. | Source

Life of Pi Analysis

I love movies that make viewers think, and Life of Pi falls into that category. I enjoy analyzing complex films and books, looking for examples of symbolism, extended metaphors, literary allusions, and analogy. I suppose this comes from years of studying and teaching literature. A big part of my time in college was spent learning and practicing such skills. Life of Pi has kept me busy!

I’ll begin with literary allusion. That’s when a work refers to another well known work. In Life of Pi, the tiger is named Richard Parker, which is an interesting allusion to Edgar Allan Poe. In Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the main character, young Pym, hides aboard a whaling ship with his dog, Tiger. On the lifeboat in the Pi movie, a boy is stranded with a tiger. Poe’s novel also includes a character named Richard Parker. In the Poe story, Pym, Richard Parker, two other shipmates, and Tiger wind up together and alone on the whaling vessel. In the movie, Pi, Richard Parker, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena are on the lifeboat together. Both stories have five characters maneuvering a vessel on their own. Poe’s characters meet a Dutch vessel, which is a welcome sight at first – until they discover the ship is full of rotting corpses. This is somewhat similar to Pi’s finding the floating island. At first, he thinks the island will be his salvation, but he soon discovers it’s a death trap. Poe’s characters face starvation, just as Pi and his companions do. In Poe’s tale, Richard Parker is sacrificed in order to save his companions. They practice cannibalism in order to survive, just as the cook does in Life of Pi.

The female orangutan represents Pi's mother.
The female orangutan represents Pi's mother. | Source

Life of Pi Symbolism

As for symbolism in Life of Pi, there are many examples. Of course, symbolism is usually open to interpretation, so you might not interpret these in the same way I have. There is no right and wrong here. I’m just providing some examples of my ideas for you to think about with Life of Pi symbolism.

To me, the most obvious symbol is Richard Parker, the tiger. It and the character of Pi are closely related, and their fates are intertwined. The tiger could represent the boy’s “darker side.” Pi says that feeding the tiger on the lifeboat and procuring food for himself made him do things he wouldn’t otherwise have done, like killing the dolphin fish. Before, Pi had always been a vegetarian. On the boat, Pi works hard to tame and control the tiger, which could represent his inner conflict of controlling his base urges.

Water plays an important role in the movie, obviously. When the hunter found the tiger, it was drinking water. When Pi first entered a Christian church, he was offered water by the priest. If the boy and the tiger are representing the same character, the water here could be symbolic of an awakening of sorts. Water is also used in Christianity for baptism, sprinkling, and christening – all forms of purification of the soul. The sea could stand for the world or for adult life in the real world. Before being forced to survive on the open ocean, Pi had led a sheltered, protected life, as most children do. The tiger is saved by accepting the water offered by Pi.

The incident with the goat could also be symbolic. Pi says that after the occurrence, his views changed. The goat could be a symbol of Pi’s childhood and innocence. The incident could also be loosely related to Christ’s sacrifice. Indirectly, the goat “saved” Pi from being attacked by the tiger.

Life of Pi symbolism also includes the carnivorous island, which might be viewed several different ways. I think Pi’s incident with the lotus flower might be an allusion to the Lotus Eaters from the Odyssey. In the epic, Odysseus’ men who ate the lotus flowers lost all their desire to return to their homes. Pi realizes he and the tiger could survive on the island, but he leaves in his quest to return to the world of humans.

The island itself could also serve as an important symbol. Many viewers see it as standing for faith or religion. A religious life can be comfortable, or it can be all consuming. And with Pi’s realization that the island is a man-eater, it could also represent the cannibalism that occurred on the lifeboat. The island might have a broader interpretation, too, like journeying into the unknown or the darker side of humanity or Nature. Nature, after all, can be benevolent or deadly. Water is necessary for life, but water can also cause mass devastation, for example.

The island might also represent Vishnu. In the movie, Vishnu is described as lying on an endless sea, with all of creation as his dreams. If you watch the movie closely, you’ll notice that the floating island’s shape looks like that of a man sleeping. If not Vishnu, the island could stand for the supernatural, in general.

The Mexican beach could stand for God. In fact, Pi says as much in the narration. He pressed his face to the sand, and states that doing so was like pressing his cheek against God. The tiger’s entering the jungle and leaving the boy forever might also be symbolic. Here, the big cat might represent Pi’s childhood. After surviving at sea for close to a year, Pi has become a man. The tiger might also represent all the hardships Pi has had to endure. Once he reached shore safely, his ordeal was over.

Many elements of the story represent abstract concepts.
Many elements of the story represent abstract concepts. | Source

Allegory

Some people regard the Life of Pi movie and the Life of Pi book as an allegory. In an allegory, characters and events stand for complex ideas and abstract concepts via concrete examples. I think one could say that Pi’s story is allegorical in nature. As I watched the film, I was reminded of The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory written by John Bunyan and published in the seventeenth century. I saw an overall similarity between the 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress and Life of Pi 2012. In Bunyan’s old tale, the main character, Christian, faces many trials, fears, and temptations traveling on Earth on his way to his destination, Heaven. Like Christian, Pi must endure all sorts of things in order to be saved. No, Pi doesn’t end up in Heaven, but he does find happiness and fulfillment.

The beach is Pi's salvation.
The beach is Pi's salvation. | Source

Life of Pi Ending

Life of Pi ending pretty much forces the viewer or reader to choose the story he or she prefers. Perhaps Martel, the author, is making a comment about faith here. Religion is based on faith, in most cases. Followers are asked to accept and believe in things they can’t explain scientifically, along with things they don’t understand. Those who believe in Pi will be willing to accept the first account of the lifeboat, even though it seems fantastical. Those who lack faith in the boy will discard the first account as Pi’s imagination.

The Life of Pi ending is the most thought-provoking part of the film. Up to that point, the story is more of an adventure-fantasy. The ending, however, really made me think. Which account was factual? That decision is left up to the viewer. Going long periods without food and water can make the victim hallucinate, so maybe Pi imagined the animal story. Or maybe the grisly human version was simply too much for a young boy to face. After all, in it, Pi commits murder, witnesses his mother’s murder, and faces cannibalism. Still, I like to believe the story with the animals, as it’s much more interesting. And maybe it’s the real Life of Pi ending. Pi told the writer he was going to share with him a story that would make him believe in God, hinting that it was miraculous. Also, according to the written record, the Japanese investigators chose to ultimately believe the animal story, too. If you’ve seen or read Life of Pi, please share your ideas in the comments section!

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Comments 31 comments

khmazz profile image

khmazz 3 years ago from South Florida

I have not seen the movie yet, but now after reading this I think I need to! Your hub is fantastic!


Ericdierker profile image

Ericdierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

I cannot comment on the whole hub --- Twice warned I will wait until I read it. Thanks


writinginalaska profile image

writinginalaska 3 years ago from southeast Alaska

fantastic movie!! Full of symbolism. REALLY makes you think! Great Hub, you did a mighty fine job there. The computer generated animals are mind blowing, difficult to wrap your brain around the fact that they are not real.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

khmazz, everyone I've talked with who saw the movie really enjoyed it!


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

I can't blame you for that, Eric!


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Alaska, thanks so much for your kind words. I agree - those critters in the Life of Pi movie are amazing!


agapsikap profile image

agapsikap 3 years ago from Philippines

My kids watched it thrice already. It is a beautiful movie.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

agapsikap, so have I! I think I actually enjoyed it more each time I saw it.


Sarra Garrett 3 years ago

What a wonderful feel good movie for me. I could watch it over and over. It's a story of survival of not only physical and mental but spiratural as well.


macteacher profile image

macteacher 3 years ago from New York

Your hub makes me want to see it. It sounds like a fascinating movie, although I don't like violence that involves animals, so I'm not sure I can sit through scenes with animals eating each other. Even if I don't see it, your hub has filled me in on the plot and made me think.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Sarra, I agree. I found Life of Pi to be uplifting, overall. Of course, some parts were sad.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

macteacher, you don't really see any blood and gore in the movie. You'll see just enough to know what happened. Like, here's a dead zebra, and here's a tiger. The next morning, the zebra is gone.


macteacher profile image

macteacher 3 years ago from New York

Ok - then I can see it. Thank you. :-)


sandijones@mchsi.com 3 years ago

I felt like I was watching the movie as I read your hub! NOW I really want to see it! I love animals and the zebra is one of my favs! Thank you for your explicit rendition of A Life of Pi!


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Sandi! Great to hear from you! Let me know how you like the film.


TurtleDog profile image

TurtleDog 3 years ago

Great, great post (even though I skimmed, and skipped, through some of your 'spoiler parts) I look forward to seeing this film. Nice take on the Allegory aspect of the film. A lot of reviewers wouldn't have included that


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Turtle, I guess that's just the old lit teacher in me! lol. I really hope you enjoy the Life of Pi movie. Come back and let me know.


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

Life of Pi is an extraordinary film, Holle, and you have just written an extraordinary review of it. Makes me want to see it more than once again. I, too, like to believe in the animals version of Pi's story.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Doc, I'm so glad you stopped by! I knew you'd "get" Life of Pi. You know - great minds and all that. LOL!


IslandBites profile image

IslandBites 3 years ago from Puerto Rico

Beautiful movie. Nice review.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Many thanks, IB!


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

Great overview and explanation. I haven't read or seen Life of Pi, but I don't mind the spoilers.


Millionaire Tips profile image

Millionaire Tips 3 years ago from USA

I have reserved the movie from the library and am waiting for my turn. It does look like a great movie. I could tell from the trailer that there would be symbolism in the movie - thanks for helping me understand it.


dfelker profile image

dfelker 3 years ago from Southern California

It was a beautiful movie you could watch over and over and get additional layers of meaning. Watched it twice plus re-viewed some parts. Unlike Argo, which was just another Hollywood action movie - watched once and returned to the video store.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Flourish, I never really mind movie spoilers, either. Thanks for reading!


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

MTips, I really hope you enjoy watching Life of Pi. I think I'll watch it again this weekend.


habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

dfelker, I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way! I haven't seen Argo. Do I need to?


Lorrany 3 years ago

Thanks for the article. The sedsans and indignation is that this tragedy is something that could have been avoided. This is different from the one that happened in the U.S.True, the sedsans is that we haven't tried to avoid something which can be avoided, because we think it is hard to avoid. Indeed, cheap products, cheap lives.


macteacher 3 years ago

I finally watched it. It is a wonderful story and the special effects are breathtaking. It was because of this hub that I finally decided to see if for myself, and I'm glad I did. :-)


papa em 14 months ago

gusto ko ito


somethgblue profile image

somethgblue 6 months ago from Shelbyville, Tennessee

Clearly the movie is about the struggle of man's soul and its relationship with the obstacles (lessons) God places before our soul as it floats through the void of life. Tzimtzum is the name of the ship they are on, that sinks.

This movie is a metaphor or parody for cannibalism and murder.

Tzimtzum is a clue to the symbolism involved in this movie (a Kaballahistic term) as it means the empty space God has created to allow the spiritual world to merge with the physical so that free choices can be made to encourage the enlightenment of sentient beings.

The first clue we get is that animals would have no idea that a lifeboat would offer refuge, they would not distinguish this from any other flotsam in the ocean. Only humans would know that it offered a chance for survival and swim too it.

The mannerisms of the zebra and the fact that zebras are vegetarians offers the next clue, the orangutang with the baby shows us that it is a mother , in fact Pi's mother.

The angry cook on the boat is clearly Depardieu and the mother sends Pi away from the boat to protect him and sacrifice herself for her son after the murder of the zebra or oriental sailor, as most mother s would do.

Clearly Pi is the tiger as he makes the connection with it earlier in life and it is the top of the food chain hunter, so seeking and getting revenge can be justified and also the eating of the others on the lifeboat.

The food and water found on the boat is an illusion, the island they find is a metaphor for the human body eating itself when the last stages of starvation set in.

The tiger leaving is Pi recognizing the illusion is over and that the reality of the situation must be either buried and denied or accepted.

The movie is about cannibalism and the choices we must make when God test our faith.

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