In a year when 3-D has added little or nothing to the films it nominally enhanced, "Life of Pi" arrives just in time to breathe life and possibility into an otherwise moribund marketing gimmick.
By design, this adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel takes viewers on an epic journey - in this case the 200-day odyssey of its title character and his unconventional travel companion - but it also plunges them into a story and myriad sub-stories. "Life of Pi" draws the audience in and encourages it to settle back, the better to enjoy its virtually nonstop display of daring, wonder and cinematic virtuosity.
The story of Piscine Molitor Patel, also known as Pi, "Life of Pi" begins with an Edenic panorama of his youth, which was spent in a small zoo run by his father in the former French colony of Pondicherry, India. (Pi is played as a youth by Ayush Tandon and as a teenager by Suraj Sharma.) In the languorous compound he shares with zebras, flamingos, hummingbirds and hippos, Pi pursues an idyllic youth and adolescence.
When the Patels decide to move to Canada, taking the animals with them on a cargo ship, the trip is interrupted by a ruinous storm, resulting in Pi being thrown overboard, his only salvation a lifeboat he must share with the zoo's ferocious Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.
Pi's journey with Richard Parker forms the main spine of "Life of Pi," which director Ang Lee infuses with the graphic, stylized boldness of illustration and moments of dazzling poetry and intimacy. Proving that digital 3-D photography need not sacrifice detail and brightness like it once did, Lee re-imagines Martel's story with a vibrant, multi-colored palette, the images and staging suggesting a state-of-the art cinematic fairy tale rather than a whiz-bang technical achievement.
The film's fable-like quality is altogether appropriate for a movie that, at its core, interrogates the very notion of faith, from Pi's porous ecumenicalism to his cautiously hopeful detente with nature at its most threatening. As if that primal standoff isn't enough, "Life of Pi" is intercut with a present-day story line, in which an unnamed writer (Rafe Spall) listens to the tale being recounted by the grown-up Pi, played by Irrfan Khan (familiar to "In Treatment" fans as Sunil), giving the entire enterprise the feeling of a series of narrative nesting dolls.
Viewers don't have to agree wholeheartedly with the film's allegorical views on God and religion to surrender to its sheer beauty, which Lee deploys with rapturous extravagance, from that early sequence at the zoo to hallucinatory scenes of flying fish, a nighttime starscape and phosphorescent jellyfish. For the potency of its images, however, "Life of Pi" has a strangely limited shelf life in the consciousness once it's over. Perhaps it's a reflection of just how good movies are this season, but for some reason, there's an evanescent, "Well, that happened" aspect to this particular tall tale-slash-spectacle.
Still, "Life of Pi" is spellbinding while it lasts and can be appreciated as many things - a post-Darwinian meditation on co-existence as the key to survival, a reflection on the spiritual nature of suffering and transcendence, a beguiling bait-and-switch on the vagaries of belief itself. Mostly, though, "Life of Pi" is a trip - in every transporting, liberating, mind-bending sense of the word.
PG. Contains emotional thematic material throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. 127 minutes.