Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” asks that we take a leap of faith along with a boy named Pi Patel and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker as an angry ocean and the ironies of fate set them adrift. Their struggle for survival is as elegant as it is epic with the director creating a grand adventure so cinematically bold, and a spiritual voyage so quietly profound, that if not for the risk to the castaways, you might wish their passage from India would never end. There are always moral crosscurrents in Lee’s most provocative work, but so magical and mystical is this parable, it’s as if the filmmaker has found the philosopher’s stone.
Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel, on which the film is based, constructed many trials for the 17-year-old Pi on his way to becoming a man. It is a richly drawn interior work, much of it spent inside Pi’s mind or awash in his memories. Lee and screenwriter David Magee have managed to stay true to the source without being constrained by it, as so often happens in adaptations. Indeed, Lee has enhanced the novel’s power, employing 3-D and CGI technology with such originality that there are moments when the ocean seems to float around you. And when a certain tiger roars, you may well jump.
As magnetic as Lee’s boundary-breaking visuals are, that wouldn’t be enough to carry the film if it were not anchored by such an electrifying tale. The core is the 227 days Pi spends in the lifeboat, where the rational and the religious vie for his soul and the tiger for his life. But the film, as the book did before it, wants you to understand the complicated and conflicted species being examined here.
To set up the existential quandaries to come, the film uses a framing device only hinted at in the novel. A writer (Rafe Spall) has tracked down the 40ish Pi (Irrfan Khan) in Montreal because he’s heard the shipwreck story might make a book. Their conversations weave the narrative together, but the literalness of the writer’s presence in this otherwise lyrical film is its weakest link.
Pi obliges the writer, with Khan an excellent choice as narrator, unlocking first the early days in Pondicherry, India, and the family-run zoo where he grew up. As the memories flow, images of the zoo fill the screen. Giraffes tear at leaves, pink flamingos high-step across a pond, hippos play, a sloth clings to a tree. It looks like a paradise, and surely was one for the two Patel brothers, Ravi and Piscine — a name that in grade school would become a taunt until a dramatic demonstration of the irrational number pi on the chalkboard stopped it. And so Pi he became (Ayush Tandon plays the 11-year-old). He is a curious boy equally interested in unraveling the enigma of God and the tiger Richard Parker. His father teaches him the tiger’s true nature in graphic fashion; God comes from the clerics of Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. Pi is ecumenical in his beliefs, which becomes a thematic undercurrent in the film.
Political shifts blow through Pondicherry like a bad wind and after a bit more back story — including Pi’s first love — the Patels and many of the animals are aboard a Japanese freighter headed for Canada with hopes of a better life. There are boys of varying ages cast in the title role, but the Pi that matters most is 18-year-old newcomer Suraj Sharma, who gives the character an emotional depth that matches the Mariana Trench where Pi’s world is torn asunder.
Fear becomes Pi’s first ally when a storm rips at the ship. The will to survive will kick in later. He’s thrown into one of the lifeboats and in the chaos that follows, some of the zoo’s menagerie join him — a frantic zebra, a fussy orangutan, a frenzied hyena and Richard Parker, who boards despite Pi’s best efforts to keep him at bay. Their face-off, and the ambivalence Pi feels toward the beast — both drawn to him and fearing him — will be another recurring theme.
You might think spending the bulk of a film in a lifeboat would soon lose its intrigue. But when there are wild animals, unpredictable seas and diminishing rations there is no time for things to get boring. The strongest survive — nothing new there — but how it comes down to the final two, and whether they will find a way through their considerable differences, is where the film works its magic. At some point the situation demands that Pi come to terms with Richard Parker and God, and this is where the film is at its lightest and darkest, managing to keep the entertainment quotient on par with the esoteric. A floating island filled with meerkats accomplishes this in particularly fine fashion.
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.
The film is consistently beautiful, but it is during Pi’s months at sea that it turns stunning. Sometimes it is in the simple wonder of a school of flying fish or a breaching whale. At others, it is the sense of an infinite presence in a star-drenched midnight sky or an ethereal underwater world illuminated by phosphorescence. The vision is Lee’s, but credit must go to the battalions required to pull off this remarkable feat, including director of photography Claudio Miranda and production designer David Gropman.
While we witness much on screen, the film rests on what Pi is feeling — his doubts, his fears, his faith. That we feel so keenly what Pi feels is a credit to Sharma in his first, and hopefully not his last time on screen, his eyes as endless as that night sky. The emotional pitch of this journey comes in the stream-of-consciousness conversations he conducts with Richard Parker and with God. For as much as Pi is searching for land, he is searching for something to believe in. In that shipwrecked boy’s struggle for answers, Lee has given us a masterpiece.
MPAA rating: PG for some scary action, emotional thematic content and peril
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: In general release