In Canada, novelist Yann Martel meets Pi Patel; Martel has been told that Pi's life story would be a good subject for a book. Pi tells his story to Yann:
Pi's father names him Piscine Molitor after the swimming pool in France. In secondary school in Pondicherry, he adopts the name "Pi" (the Greek letter, π) to avoid the sound-alike nickname "Pissing Patel". He is raised in a Hindu family, but at 12 years old, is introduced to Christianity and then Islam, and decides to follow all three religions as he "just wants to love God". His mother supports his desire to grow, but his rationalist father tries to secularize him. Pi's family owns a zoo, and Pi takes interest in the animals, especially a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After Pi gets dangerously close to Richard Parker, his father forces him to witness the tiger killing a goat.
When Pi is 16, his father announces that they must move to Canada, where he intends to settle and sell the animals. The family books passage with the animals on a Japanese freighter. During a storm, the ship founders while Pi is on deck. He tries to find his family, but a crewman throws him into a lifeboat. A freed zebra jumps onto the boat with him, breaking its leg. The ship sinks into the Mariana Trench. Pi briefly sees what appears to be a survivor, but it turns out to be Richard Parker.
After the storm, Pi awakens in the lifeboat with the zebra, and is joined by a resourceful orangutan. A spotted hyena emerges from under a tarpaulin covering half of the lifeboat and snaps at Pi, forcing him to retreat to the end of the boat. The hyena kills the zebra and later the orangutan. Richard Parker emerges from under the tarpaulin, killing the hyena and attempting to kill Pi, before retreating back to cover for several days.
Pi fashions a small tethered raft from flotation vests which he retreats to for safety from Richard Parker. Despite his moral code against killing, he begins fishing, enabling him to sustain the tiger as well. When the tiger jumps into the sea to hunt for fish and then comes threateningly towards Pi, Pi considers letting him drown, but ultimately helps him back into the boat. One night, a humpback whale breaches near the boat, destroying the raft and its supplies. Pi trains Richard Parker to accept him in the boat, and realizes that caring for the tiger is also helping keep himself alive.
Weeks later they encounter a floating island of interconnected trees. It is a lush jungle of edible plants, fresh water pools and a large population of meerkats, enabling Pi and Richard Parker to eat and drink freely and regain strength. At night, the island transforms into a hostile environment. Richard Parker retreats to the lifeboat while Pi and the meerkats sleep in the trees; the water pools turn acidic, digesting the fish in them. Pi deduces that the island is carnivorous after finding a human tooth embedded in a flower.
Pi and Richard Parker leave the island, eventually reaching the coast of Mexico. Pi is saddened that Richard Parker does not acknowledge him before disappearing into the jungle. He is rescued and brought to a hospital. Insurance agents for the Japanese freighter company interview him, but do not believe his story and ask what really happened. He tells a different story, in which the animals are replaced by human survivors: his mother for the orangutan, an amiable sailor for the zebra, and the ship's brutish cook for the hyena. In this story, Pi kills the cook and feeds on his flesh. Eventually he reaches the coast of Mexico. The insurance agents are dissatisfied with this story, but they leave without questioning Pi further.
Yann recognizes the parallels between the two stories, noting that in the second one, Pi fills the role of the tiger. Pi asks which story The Writer prefers, and Yann chooses the first, to which Pi replies, "and so it goes with God". Glancing at a copy of the insurance report, Yann sees that the agents also chose the first story.Piscine Molitor "Pi" PatelGautam Belur as Pi, age 5Ayush Tandon as Pi, age 11/12Suraj Sharma as Pi, age 16Irrfan Khan as Pi, adultRafe Spall as Yann Martel, the real-life Canadian novelist who wrote the novel Life of PiTabu as Gita Patel, Pi's motherAdil Hussain as Santosh Patel, Pi's fatherRavi Patel, Pi's older brother:Ayan Khan as Ravi, age 7Mohamed Abbas Khaleeli as Ravi, age 13/14Vibish Sivakumar as Ravi, age 18/19Gérard Depardieu as the CookWang Po-chieh as SailorJag Huang as SailorShravanthi Sainath as Anandi, Pi's teenage girlfriendAndrea Di Stefano as the PriestElie Alouf as Francis
The project had numerous directors and writers attached, and the Los Angeles Times credited Fox 2000 Pictures executive Elizabeth Gabler with keeping the project active. In February 2003 Gabler acquired the project to adapt Life of Pi into a film. She hired screenwriter Dean Georgaris to write an adapted screenplay.
The following October, Fox 2000 announced a partnership with M. Night Shyamalan to direct the film. Shyamalan was attracted to the novel particularly because its main character also comes from Pondicherry in India. The partners anticipated for Shyamalan to direct the film adaptation after completing The Village. He also replaced Georgaris as the screenwriter, writing a new screenplay for the film. Ultimately, Shyamalan chose to film Lady in the Water after The Village; he said later, "I was hesitant [to direct] because the book has kind of a twist ending. And I was concerned that as soon as you put my name on it, everybody would have a different experience."
In March 2005, Fox 2000 entered talks with Alfonso Cuarón to direct. Cuarón decided to direct Children of Men instead, and in October 2005, Fox 2000 hired Jean-Pierre Jeunet to direct the film. Jeunet began writing the adapted screenplay with Guillaume Laurant, and filming was scheduled to begin in mid-2006, partially in India. Jeunet eventually left the project.
In February 2009, Fox 2000 Pictures hired Ang Lee to direct the film. In May 2010, Lee and the producer Gil Netter proposed a reported budget of US$120 million, at which the studio balked, placing the project's development on hold for a short Time. David Magee was hired to write the screenplay, as Lee began to spend several months looking for someone to cast as Pi. Lee stated that water was a major inspiration behind making the film in 3-D: "I thought this was a pretty impossible movie to make technically. It's so expensive for what it is. You sort of have to disguise a philosophical book as an adventure story. I thought of 3-D half a year before 'Avatar' was on the screen. I thought water, with its transparency and reflection, the way it comes out to you in 3-D, would create a new theatrical experience and maybe the audience or the studio would open up their minds a little bit to accept something different." Following the premiere of the film, Lee stated that his desire to take risks and chances helped with his direction, saying "In a strange way it did feel like we're the vessels, we have to surrender to movie god. We have to let things happen. I just had this feeling, I'll follow this kid to wherever this movie takes me. I saw the movie start to unravel in front of me."
Pre-production and casting
After 3,000 young men auditioned for the film's lead, in October 2010 Lee cast Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old student and an acting newcomer. Upon receiving the role, Sharma underwent extensive training in ocean survival, as well as in yoga and meditation practices to prepare for the part. Two months after Sharma was cast, it was announced that Gérard Depardieu would play the role of the Cook, Irrfan Khan would play the adult Pi, Adil Hussain would play Pi's father, while Tabu was in talks to play the role of Pi's mother.
Canadian child actor Rajiv Surendra, best known at the time for a small part in Mean Girls, was one of the auditioners for the role of Pi. In 2016, he published The Elephants in My Backyard, a memoir of his failed campaign to win the part. In an interview with Deccan Chronicle in 2017, American actor Naren Weiss revealed that he too unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Pi.
In April 2011, it was announced that Tobey Maguire would be joining the film in the role originally referred to as "a reporter." However, in September 2012, it was announced that Lee had cut Maguire from the film. He justified the cut by stating that he did it "to be consistent with the other casting choices made for the film, I decided to go with an entirely international cast." Like Shahrukh Khan, Lee described Maguire's presence also as "too jarringly recognizable." He reshot the scenes with Rafe Spall in the role of the book's actual author.
Principal photography for the film began on January 18, 2011 in Puducherry at the Holy Rosary Church in Muthialpet. Filming continued in Puducherry until January 31 and moved to other parts of India, including the popular hill station of Munnar in Kerala, as well as Taiwan. The crew filmed in Taiwan for five and a half months in Taipei Zoo, an airport in Taichung, and Kenting National Park, located in Pingtung County where Lee was born. The ocean scenes of the film were shot at a giant wave tank built by the crew in an abandoned airport. The tank is known as the world's largest self-generating wave tank, with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons. With production scheduled to last two and a half months at the tank, cinematographer Claudio Miranda assisted in the tank's design in order to get the most out of it for lighting, explaining, "We knew we were going to be inside there shooting for 2.5 months, so it was worth it to be able to do anything we want. On all these kind of scenes, we had an idea of what the weather would be like. In that tank, I can create storm clouds, nightfall. We had curtains that I can block out [light], doors to open and let in real sunlight," Miranda says. "So lighting-wise, [the movie] had a big ebb and flow." After photography was completed in Taiwan, production moved back to India and concluded in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
The lead visual effects company for Life of Pi was Rhythm & Hues Studios (R&H). 3D effects for the film were created by a team of R&H artists in Los Angeles, Mumbai and Hyderabad (India), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Vancouver (Canada), and Kaohsiung (Taiwan).
The R&H VFX (Visual Effects) Supervisor Bill Westenhofer said that discussions of the project began with Ang Lee in August 2009. Westenhofer noted that Lee "knew we had done the lion in the first Narnia movie. He asked, 'Does a digital character look more or less real in 3D?' We looked at each other and thought that was a pretty good question." He also stated that during these meetings, Lee said, "'I look forward to making art with you.' This was really for me one of the most rewarding things I've worked on and the first chance to really combine art with VFX. Every shot was artistic exploration, to make the ocean a character and make it interesting we had to strive to make it as visually stunning as possible." Rhythm & Hues spent a year on research and development, " building upon its already vast knowledge of CG animation" to develop the tiger. The British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine suggested that, "Life of Pi can be seen as the film Rhythm & Hues has been building up to all these years, by taking things they learned from each production from Cats & Dogs to Yogi Bear, integrating their animals in different situations and environments, pushing them to do more, and understanding how all of this can succeed both visually and dramatically."
Artist Abdul Rahman in the Malaysian branch underscored the global nature of the effects process, saying that "the special thing about Life of Pi is that it was the first time we did something called remote rendering, where we engaged our cloud infrastructure in Taiwan called CAVE (Cloud Animation and Visual Effects)."
Additional visual effects studios that worked on the film include MPC, yU+co, Buf, Crazy Horse Effects, Look Effects, Christov Effects, Lola VFX, Reliance Mediaworks, and Stereo D.
The film's musical score was composed by Mychael Danna, who previously wrote the music to Lee's films The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil. A soundtrack album of the music was released by Sony Classical Records on 16 November 2012. The album features the track "Pi's Lullaby", which was co-written by Danna and Bombay Jayashri, who performs the song in Tamil.
Due to the film's holiday release, Life of Pi's financial success had been under review. Dorothy Pomerantz of Forbes said, "It looks like chances are very slim that the film will earn back its production and marketing costs let alone turn a profit." Pomerantz attributed this to the fact that film was not led by a big name star and faced other winter blockbusters. John Horn and Ben Fritz of The Los Angeles Times compared the film to Martin Scorsese's Hugo, a large-budget 3D film that opened during the 2011 Thanksgiving week. They said that Life of Pi could have ended up like Hugo by "failing to connect with moviegoers" and become a "financial failure." Similar speculation had been made by other news sources.
Whether or not Hurricane Sandy would affect the film's publicity was also a question. Because the film includes a massive storm, it was speculated that the recent storm might result in lower box office revenue due to the unintentional overtones of Sandy's devastation. A Fox spokesperson made note that there were no plans to change the film's marketing approach.
During the marketing campaign for Life of Pi, the film was promoted as "the next Avatar" in trailers and TV spots. James Cameron, the director of Avatar, later became the subject of two featurettes that focus on the film's 3D and computer-generated imagery. In addition, the original novel was re-released in a movie tie-in edition. This was later followed by the release of The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, a Journey, a book by Jean-Christophe Castelli that details how Life of Pi was brought to the big screen.
Life of Pi had a wide release in the United States on November 21, 2012 in both traditional and 3D viewing formats. It was originally scheduled to be released on December 14, 2012, but when The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was announced for the same release date, Life of Pi was postponed a week. It was then shifted a month in advance.
Life of Pi was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and Blu-ray 3D in North America, on March 12, 2013. The film's 2D Blu-ray release contains many special features, including a one-hour making-of special entitled A Filmmaker's Epic Journey, two featurettes focusing on the film's visual effects, as well as two behind-the-scene looks at storyboarding and pre-production artwork. In addition, the film's 3D Blu-ray release contains five deleted scenes and a featurette entitled VFX Progressions that takes a look at what was shot and how it evolved to be what was rendered on screen. The Film was later was released on 4K UHD on March 8, 2016
As of May 8, 2013, Life of Pi has grossed US$124,772,844 in North America, and US$484,029,542 in other countries, for a worldwide total of US$609,006,177. During its opening on the extended Thanksgiving weekend, the film debuted in 2,902 theaters throughout the United States and Canada and grossed US$30,573,101. On the Chinese mainland, from November 22 to December 24, the film topped the box office for three weeks, and grossed over US$91 million. As of January 24, 2013, it had also topped the box office for three weeks in Australia, Chile, and four weeks in Mexico and Peru. The film became the biggest Hollywood hit of the year in India and is also estimated to be the third-highest grossing Hollywood release of all time in the country behind Avatar and 2012. Life of Pi has earned HK$45,058,653 (US$5.8 million) at the Hong Kong box office, making it the highest grossing Ang Lee film in Hong Kong.
Life of Pi received highly positive reviews, with praise directed towards the visual effects, Ang Lee's direction, David Magee's screenplay, Mychael Danna's musical score, and the editing. It has an 87% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 232 reviews with an average rating of 7.9/10. Its consensus reads "A 3D adaptation of a supposedly "unfilmable" book, Ang Lee's Life of Pi achieves the near impossible -- it's an astonishing technical achievement that's also emotionally rewarding." On Metacritic, the film has an average score of 79 out of 100, based on 44 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave Life of Pi 4 out of 4 stars, referring to it as "a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery" as well as "one of the best films of the year." He particularly praised the film's use of 3D that he described as "deepen[ing] the film's sense of places and events." Comparatively, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone highlighted the use of 3D in the film suggesting that "like Hugo, from Martin Scorsese, Life of Pi puts 3D in the hands of a worldclass film artist. (Ang) Lee uses 3D with the delicacy and lyricism of a poet. You don't just watch this movie, you live it." Parmita Borah of Eastern Fare says, "There is this one scene in particular where the entire ocean is covered with jelly fish which makes you feel like 'this is what heaven must look like'."
The Los Angeles Times critic Betsy Sharkey referred to the film as a "masterpiece," stating that
There is always a poetic aesthetic that Lee brings to his best work – the brutal martial arts ballet of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the homophobic hatred against the backcountry grandeur of Brokeback Mountain, which would win him an Oscar for directing in 2006. In Life of Pi, certainly given its technological achievements, the filmmaker has raised the bar. Not since James Cameron's breathtaking blue Avatar in 2009 has 3-D had such impact.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Cameron himself highlighted the film's use of 3D, noting that
Life of Pi breaks the paradigm that 3-D has to be some big, action fantasy spectacle, superhero movie [....] The movie is visually amazing, inventive, and it works on you in ways you're not really aware of. It takes you on a journey, and unless you've read the book – which I hadn't – you have no idea where that journey is going. It does what good 3-D is supposed to do, which is, it allows you to forget you're watching a 3-D movie.
According to French journalist Marjolaine Gout, the movie is "a philosophical tale where Noah's Ark metamorphoses into 'The Raft of the Medusa'". She adds that it is "a visual masterpiece" in which "Ang Lee proves, once again, his talent as a universal storyteller". She also writes about the visual poetry of the movie reminding viewers of the works of classical painters and the symbolic of kolams. The film got 8 out of 10 stars, the readers gave 7 stars.
Yann Martel, the author of the novel on which the film is based, found the film to be a "delightful" adaptation, saying,
I'm happy it works so well as a film. Even if the ending is not as ambiguous as the book's, the possibility that there might be another version of Pi's story comes at you unexpectedly and raises the same important questions about truth, perception and belief.
A. O. Scott of The New York Times was critical of the film's narrative frame, arguing that "the movie invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things, but it also may cause you to doubt what you see with your own eyes – or even to wonder if, in the end, you have seen anything at all." Scott further criticized the film for repressing the darker themes of the tale. Nick Schager of The Village Voice also panned the film stating "A stacked-deck theological inquiry filtered through a Titanic-by-way-of–Slumdog Millionaire narrative, Life of Pi manages occasional spiritual wonder through its 3-D visuals but otherwise sinks like a stone." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave the film 2 out of 5 stars, and states "despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story [....] It deserves every technical prize going."
Richard Corliss of Time selected the film as the third-best movie of 2012, as well as calling it the next Avatar.
The film has been described as containing a "subtle, artistic warning" about the dangers of increased anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions and ocean acidification, the acidic island Pi and Richard Parker encounter being compared to Castello Aragonese in the Tyrrhenian Sea near Naples and Richard Parker's final dismissive departure representing the "not too pleasant face of Gaia (see Gaia hypothesis)."
Life of Pi was listed on many critics' top ten lists.
Despite the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the 2013 Academy Awards, Rhythm & Hues Studios (who provided most of the visual effects for the film) was forced to file for bankruptcy on February 11, 2013, citing unfair competition from subsidized and tax exempt foreign studios. This sparked a demonstration of nearly 500 VFX artists who protested outside the 2013 Academy Awards. Inside, during the Oscars, when R&H visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer brought up R&H during his acceptance speech for Life of Pi, the microphone was cut off. This started an uproar among many visual effects industry professionals, changing profile pictures on social media such as Facebook and Twitter to show the green key colour, in order to raise awareness for what is happening to the effects industry. In addition, director Ang Lee was criticized by the protest leader for his failure to thank the effect industry, "Ang thanked the crew, the actors, his agent, his lawyer and the entire population of Taiwan right down to the team that built the wave-pool on the soundstage where Pi was shot, but failed to mention hundreds of artists who made not only the main character of the tiger, but replaced that pool, making it look like a real ocean for 80% of his movie." He was also criticized for earlier complaining about the costs of visual effects. In February 2014, Christina Lee Storm and Scott Leberecht released the documentary Life After Pi to YouTube. The documentary details the role Rhythm & Hues played in Life of Pi as well as the consequent bankruptcy. Bill Westenhofer also discusses his experience at the Oscars as he accepted a Visual Effects award for Rhythm & Hues' work on Life of Pi.
A trust named after Carnatic musician Irayimman Thampi has accused Bombay Jayashri's Oscar-nominated song "Pi's Lullaby" of not being an original composition. The trust has alleged that the first eight lines of the song is a word-by-word translation of composer Thampi's renowned lullaby in Malayalam Omanathinkal Kidavo. Jayashri has denied the allegation.
A 2013 investigation by the Hollywood Reporter brought to light leaked emails suggesting that animals involved in the filming of Life of Pi had been mistreated during the filming despite the American Humane Association’s "No Animals Were Harmed" certification on the film. In an April 7, 2011 ACA monitor, Gina Johnson, wrote that “last week we almost killed King” The email goes on to suggest that the incident, in which the tiger apparently nearly drowned while filming a scene, would be "downplayed" in the official report to the ACA. Additionally, the exposé alleges that Johnson was involved in a romantic relationship with one of the film’s producers, possibly representing a conflict of interest. Life of Pi director Ang Lee has described the animal abuse allegations as "an accident" in interviews. Following the publication of the Hollywood Reporter investigation, Gina Johnson resigned from her position with the ACA.
New animal welfare concerns were raised in 2015 when PETA released a video that appeared to show Life of Pi animal trainer Michael Hackenberger swearing at and whipping a young tiger 19 times. In April 2016, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals filed animal cruelty charges against Hackenberger based on the video evidence.
Life of Pi was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won four (more than any other film from 2012): Best Director (Ang Lee), Best Cinematography (Claudio Miranda), Best Visual Effects (Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott) and Best Original Score (Mychael Danna). It was nominated for three Golden Globe Awards and won for Best Original Score. The film also won awards for cinematography, film editing, sound effects and original score at several other awards ceremonies. In addition to the Academy Award, Ang Lee won best director awards from the Kansas City, Las Vegas, and London Film Critics. The film was awarded the Best Picture award by the Las Vegas Film Critics Society and was named one of the top ten films of the year by the New York Film Critics and the Southeastern Film Critics.