Just like Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi works seamlessly on two levels. With grace, imagination and stunning visual acuity, it explores Martel’s twin themes of faith and the power of storytelling. It’s also a thrilling action adventure, shot in 3D so artful you may never again complain about the technique being wasted or employed only to raise ticket prices.
The film centers on Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan, The Amazing Spider-Man), who is telling his story of survival to a Toronto writer (Rafe Spall). This story, Pi assures the writer, will make him believe in God.
Pi grew up in Pondicherry, India, where his family owned a zoo. Pi’s father is proudly nonreligious, preferring the realities of science to the mysteries of faith, but the notion of spirituality preoccupies young Pi (Ayush Tandon). He sets out to explore every religion open to a boy in Pondicherry, which is how he becomes a Hindu-Catholic-Muslim, much to the amusement of his family.
Pi is equally fascinated by the pitiless ferocity of Richard Parker, the zoo’s Bengal tiger (the big cat got his name from a paperwork mistake). Pi is smart enough to fear Richard Parker — especially after his father forces a bloody lesson on him about the unsentimental brutality of nature — but he’s still intrigued by the idea of connecting with the tiger. Does Richard Parker have a soul? Or is he merely a predator, destined only to kill to stay alive?
Then Pi’s family decides to emigrate to Canada and boards a freighter with most of the animals, which have been sold to zoos in North America. During a violent storm, the boat sinks, in a harrowing scene so intense it will leave you limp and wrung-out. The teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma), awakened by the noise of the wind and crumbling ship, escapes in one of the life rafts with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan — and Richard Parker.
How Pi survives on the raft with Richard Parker makes up the bulk of the film, which follows the unlikely castaways as they float across the Pacific Ocean, encountering wonder, terror, thirst, starvation, death, compassion, maybe even the hand of God himself. Life of Pi is a fable about belief, to be sure, but the way in which it deals with such lofty themes is immediate and never overly pedantic. Lee doesn’t spend too much time allowing Pi to reflect on his situation. Instead, he uses the elder Pi’s voiceover to put actions into perspective and paces his film with swift authority. This is a film that moves inexorably forward, even as it jumps back and forth from past to present.
Lee, whose last film was the disappointing Taking Woodstock, has excelled in the past at adapting films from fiction — Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm — and with the technology to make Life of Pi come alive now available, he has created breathtaking visuals, from the lush Pondicherry zoo to the open seas, where boy and tiger alternately battle for power and co-exist in uneasy and short-lived truces. Not everything looks real, exactly, but the film’s more fantastical moments — such as when Pi’s raft floats above an ocean glowing with phosphorescence — mirror the fable-like nature of Martel’s story. Don’t wait for Netflix. Life of Pi demands to be seen on the biggest screen you can find.
As for the animals, they are so flawlessly rendered you might be persuaded they were real, if not for the insurance risks of putting young Sharma on a raft with an actual tiger. The fearsome Richard Parker looks no more like a CGI creation than the actor looks like a CGI boy. When Lee turns his camera on Richard Parker’s eyes, we look deep, too, to see what’s inside. If there is no soul there, at least there is one in this mesmerizing movie.
Cast: Irrfan Khan, Suraj Sharma, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu.
Director: Ang Lee.
Screenwriter: David Magee. Based on the novel by Yann Martel.
Producers: Ang Lee, Gil Netter, David Womack.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 127 minutes. Emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action sequences and peril. Playing at: area theaters.