Life of Pi. Dir. Ang Lee. 20th-Century Fox. 2011.

Ang Lees’s Life of Pi is a shipwreck film that depicts the epic journey of the main character Piscine ‘Pi’ Molitor Patel, whilst addressing many issues along the way such as those of personal loss, racism, survival and many more. Lee is able to achieve this level of depth in his novel chiefly by using the potential for animals to be used to help explain human characteristics. After Pi and his family decide to leave India for Canada after being forced to sell their zoo, the vessel they are travelling on is sunk by a fierce storm. With his family dead, Pi is forced to negotiate his survival on a life raft that he shares with vicious tiger Richard Parker, a Hyena that is eventually killed by the tiger, and a zebra and an orang-utan that are killed by the hyena. Pi is able to use a variety of techniques that allow him and Richard Parker to coexist on board the raft, and together they encounter many adventures including coming across a living island inhabited by vast numbers of meerkats. When they eventually reach the Mexican coast, the Japanese authorities question Pi as to the cause of the shipwreck. They do not believe his story about the animals so he changes the characters to humans, namely the cook, a sailor and his mother; a move which shocks the men due to the brutal nature of its content, so they decide to believe Pi’s first story with the animals.

Although the Life of Pi can without a doubt be categorised into the adventure genre, with Pi embarking on his epic journey of survival with the zoo animals, the fantasy side of the genre is slightly more difficult to identify in the film. To be classed as a fantasy, a film must ‘transcend the boundaries of human possibilities and physical law[1]’, and whether the events of Life of Pi actually do this is open to interpretation, although most of this discussion can be focused largely around the presence of animals in the film. For example there clearly appears to be supernatural forces at work when Pi and Richard Parker encounter the home of the meerkats, on a carnivorous island that seems to come alive at night an devour any of the inhabitants that are left on the ground. Whilst audiences may think that it is impossible that something like this could exist, the acidity of the inland lakes on the island is somewhat believable[2], as is Pi’s conviction about the events on the island when he is telling the first of his stories. His feat of surviving 227 days adrift at sea with an extremely violent Bengal tiger sounds like fantasy, especially when Pi changes the story so dramatically at the end of the film. He does however go in to great detail about how he tamed Richard Parker, including rewarding him with fish for good behaviour, as well as creating the association of the blast of a whistle to sea sickness in the tiger’s mind in order subdue and successfully coexist with him. Overall though, Pi’s own readiness to provide an alternative story to the insurance company, one that appears too cruel and explicit to fabricate, means that the more implausible events of the first story are easy for the audience to discard as a fantasy created in order to avoid facing the more bleak truth of his experience.

The primary reason for the inclusion of animals in the film is to reflect the more primal emotions and decisions that the human characters make throughout their long ordeal in Life of Pi. When Pi eventually changes his story, he replaces each animal on the lifeboat with a human; the hyena for the cook, the orang-utan for his mother, the zebra for the sailor, and most shockingly, Richard Parker for himself. This is significant as the central presence of the entire film is indeed the tiger Richard Parker, whether he is viewed as his own entity, or the manifestation of Pi’s wrath towards the cook. He is presented as enormously large and powerful, seemingly the antithesis of Pi, who makes it clear that he sees himself as small and weak by continually referring to himself in ways such as ‘a skinny vegetarian boy’[3]. The idea that Pi creates Richard Parker to represent the scale of his emotion and need for revenge against the cook, who, when we consider link between humans and animals on comparison of the two stories, murders his mother just as the hyena murders the orang-utan, epitomises the way that animals are used to magnify the importance of significant events in the film. Richard Parker’s frantic and unexpected arrival from his hiding place beneath the tarpaulin takes place immediately after the hyena commits its crime, and leaves the audience in little doubt about the extent of the placid Pi’s transformation into somebody driven by the sheer extent of his rage.

Pi’s ability to avoid getting eaten by the eternally hungry Richard Parker by inducing sea sickness in him from rocking the boat has already been mentioned, but he also achieves this by shouting and prodding at him with a sharp docking hook, as well as tipping him overboard to nearly drown in the ocean. This harsh treatment of such a magnificent, exotic animal would surely normally be accompanied by cries of indignation from animal lovers, but the director is able to ensure that this does not even cross the mind of the audience by using a number of effective cinematic techniques. The visual effects supervisor for the film Bill Westenhofer revealed that ‘only 14% of the shots were real tigers’[4] which immediately eradicates any worries regarding any potential harm to a tiger during the production, but despite this assurance, it is the way that Ang Lee interprets the subtleties of the relationship between Pi and his alter-ego Richard Parker that really helps to avoid any criticism on the subject of animal cruelty. Richard Parker’s sudden appearance to kill the hyena can be interpreted as a representation of Pi’s freak reaction to the murder of his mother, from a completely unexpected part of Pi’s psyche. When thinking about it though, this darker side of Pi’s personality may in fact be something that he struggles with on a more regular basis. Richard Parker remains violent and unpredictable even after he kills the hyena, suggesting that this destructive force that Pi has inside him is something that he perhaps struggles with on a more regular basis. At home in India, Richard Parker is safely controlled behind the bars of the family zoo, a place where Pi is content and happy.  Adrift in the middle of the ocean however, there is no barrier between himself and Richard Parker, so he has to take drastic steps such as the rough treatment with the docking hook in order to ensure that he isn’t consumed by Richard Parker or his violent alter ego. It takes Pi to tell his other version of the story at the end of the film for the audience to understand just how important it is for Richard Parker to forcefully controlled, as it represents Pi’s own internal struggle, and how he comes to terms with the death of his mother. It is not even acceptable it seems, to treat animals with brutality even when you are fighting for your survival, as animal rights organisations are beginning  call upon strange facts such as “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses”[5], which seems to suggest that it is wrong for humans to value their lives above animals. And Lee’s directing however, ensures that the audience understands that there are matters far more complex than those simply of animal cruelty at play in Life of Pi.

Without a doubt, the way that animals are presented in Life of Pi is meant to coax an awed response from audiences in reaction to the sheer size and magnificence of their appearances. Aside from the menacing Richard Parker, the other scene that sticks in the mind long after the credits have finished rolling is the whale jumping clear of the sparkling water with spellbinding special effects right next to Pi’s raft. Whilst this is an amazing sight, it results in Pi losing most of his food and other provisions.  This is typical of the way that animals are presented in Life of Pi; staggeringly beautiful and yet formidable and not to be underestimated. One minute Pi is marvelling at the spectacle of the whale, the next he is lamenting how it unwittingly made his survival drastically more difficult simply by its sheer uncontrollable size and power. Whatever interpretation of Richard Parker that you favour, there is no denying that he is a thing of fearful gorgeousness, something to be admired and feared in equal measure. He is clearly meant to be the main antagonist of the story, yet Pi admits ‘my fear of him keeps me alert’ and that tending to the needs of Richard Parker ‘gives my life purpose’.[6]

I believe that the director Ang Lee seems to be saying that the humans in this film cannot exist without the presence of the animals in their lives, perhaps in a hope to establish an important link between humans and animals[1]. Without the encounter with the whale, Pi would not have learnt to be more careful with the little supplies he had, nor would he have learnt to not take beauty at face value, as he might have done with the dangerous carnivorous island, that even Richard Parker would not have been able to escape. This idea is concentrated even further with Richard Parker who ultimately seems to be one and the same as Pi who hints at this throughout, including saying, ‘we were both raised in a zoo by the same master’[2], implying that he believes that he can never really rid himself of Richard Parker nor does he want to. The most pivotal moment in the film is when Richard Parker turns his back on Pi as soon as they reach dry land, ultimately reminding Pi that ‘he is an animal, not a playmate’[3], and despite the absolute necessity of his presence whilst they were adrift at sea, he forces Pi to relive the painful absence of goodbyes that he already experienced with the unexpected loss of his family. Animals have their functions in Life of Pi, but underestimate them at your peril.


Word Count: 1713

[1] (Accessed 20th March 2013).

[3] Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012).

[6] Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012).

[7] J Berger, Why Look at Animals?, (London: Reakinton, 2002).

[8] Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012).

[9] Ang Lee, Life of Pi (2012).

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