Irrfan Khan is Pi, having a quiet day at home when an annoyingly Richard Dreyfuss-looking writer (Rafe Spall, one of the Andys in Hot Fuzz) shows up demanding to be told a story. So Pi starts at the beginning – he is named after a French swimming pool and lives with brother and parents (Tabu, who played Khan’s wife in The Namesake, is his mom) at a zoo, and is interested in religion.
One day the family packs up their zoo and heads off in a ship, which sinks in stormy waters, presumably killing Pi’s whole family. He finds himself on a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a rat, a hyena and a bengal tiger named Richard Parker, but the animals soon eat each other until it’s just Pi and the tiger. He fashions a raft so he can sleep without getting killed, but loses all his food and water due to a leaping whale. Formerly vegetarian, Pi learns to catch and eat fish. Boy and tiger stop on a “carnivorous island,” then get the hell out of there after loading up on edible roots. Finally, land and rescue, though Pi is sad that he never managed to connect with the tiger.
Rafe Spall thinks the whole thing is pretty far-fetched, so Pi gives another version of the story (told, not shown), where the lifeboat survivors were people, including Pi’s mother and a sadistic cook from the boat (Gerard Depardieu), then asks Rafe which story he prefers. The center of the film is just perfect – more colorful and awe-inspiring than a shipwreck story has any right to be.
But the frame story, in which an older Pi, a happily settled vegetarian living in Canada, tells his tale to a white male writer who in the credits is called “The Writer” is both a little cloying and forced and smacks a bit of, dare I say it, colonialist thought. I know that it’s a faithful adaptation from the book, and I know the book’s author is a white male writer, but I personally am just a wee bit tired of the convention in which a representative of The Other relates a tale of profundity to a white dude. Changing it up a little can’t hurt. Hell, a white woman would be less boring. I understand that second-guessing the artist is poor critical practice. But that fact remains that this convention, which was always pretty patronizing to begin with, has ossified into cliché, and the movie suffers for it.