Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel “Life of Pi” followed the young Indian survivor of a shipwreck stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger — the kind of high concept scenario both easy to comprehend and difficult to envision in movie terms. Much of the story, narrated by its spiritually minded protagonist, contains prolonged philosophical discussions and remains tethered to an extremely minimalist setting. That Ang Lee has managed to turn the limitations of his source material into his adaptation’s greatest strength makes “Life of Pi” a significant achievement for the filmmaker in spite of blatant problems with structure, dialogue and other surface issues. “Life of Pi” succeeds in its most audacious moments and struggles whenever it returns to familiar ground.
David Magee’s generally faithful screenplay deepens the sensationalistic imagery of the novel’s opening setting with enjoyably ostentatious 3D that instantly leaves an impression. The title sequence is set in the lavish Indian zoo where the inquisitive Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is raised by his secular father. From the first 30 seconds of the film, when a hummingbird hovers before our eyes and a sloth seemingly dangles off the screen, “Life of Pi” announces Lee’s intention to craft astonishing visions.
But when the movie flashes forward a number of years to find an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) living comfortably in Canada and recounting his incredible experience to a wide-eyed journalist Rafe Spall), “Life of Pi” introduces a sloppy framing device that instantly drags the exposition into problematic territory. Notwithstanding Pi’s constant voiceover, Lee’s insistence on returning to Pi’s austere living room throughout his tale constantly interrupts the allure of a significantly engaging parable.
Whenever Lee abandons the contemporary setting, the movie successfully funnels its thematic conceits into an involving high seas epic. At its core, “Life of Pi” revolves around one man’s ongoing attempt to reconcile his spiritual tendencies with an awareness of nature’s inherently chaotic state (in the book, the character double-majored in zoology and religious studies). The early scenes that establish the adolescent Pi’s burgeoning interest in world religions despite his strict father’s disdain move swiftly along, aided by the exotic backdrop the zoo provides. Once the family decides to leave the zoo and set sail for Canada with their menagerie in tow, “Life of Pi” enters into a fantasy realm enhanced by the surrounding waves, which eventually subsume the weak ship.
With phenomenal underwater footage that realizes the pandemonium of wild animals run loose on a slippery vessel, the intense and supremely well-crafted scene of the ship’s demise is perhaps the best of its kind since “Titanic.” It’s the first of several disorienting moments of lyrical beautiful to transcend the clumsy screenplay. Once aboard his lifeboat with a handful of animals including the fierce tiger curiously named Richard Parker, Pi struggles to survive the restless sea while forming an odd symbiotic relationship with the starving beast. From this point forward, the main scenario forms Lee’s most spectacular achievement since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — ironically enough, there’s more tiger in this movie than that one, and he’s a magnificently realized screen presence — and the movie certainly represents Lee’s grandest directorial achievement since “Brokeback Mountain.”
With Pi and the tiger trapped on their tiny craft, “Life of Pi” settles into a contained drama that’s enlivened with storybook imagery. Heavily reliant on CGI from the team behind “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Pi’s saga includes more than just a daunting tiger. The grandiose critters he encounters at sea include massive schools of fish, colossal whales and jellyfish that light up the ocean in the dark of night. For reasons only revealed later on, “Life of Pi” contains a tremendously involving degree of magical realism that enhances the harsh fairy tale quality of the adventure. The movie’s visuals frequently transcend the plot. In one instance, Pi’s cosmic hallucination of land and sea creatures morphing together against a starry backdrop easily outdoes all the soul-searching dialogue (“God, I am your vessel,” Pi shouts to the heavens in one of several cases where the script overstates his crisis of faith).
Anchored by newcomer Sharma in the lead role, “Life of Pi” is better at conveying the young man’s mounting despair than his lingering optimism. With ongoing reminders that his plight represents something beyond its superficial definition, Lee’s film constantly undoes its own spell, particularly in the painfully obvious closing act. But it’s still a wild ride to get there.
Considering its flaws, the number of elements that do connect not only stand out but actively sustain the movie’s appeal. Unlike “Castaway” or other tales of marooned victims struggling against nature’s indifference, “Life of Pi” manages to inspire the same kind of awe that, at other times, it overstates to cheesy effect. In its finer moments, however, Lee translates the book’s prose into grand visual conceits meant for the big screen. Posited as a story that “will make you believe in god,” instead it has the power to confirm one’s faith in the cinematic experience.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An appropriate choice to open the 50th edition of the New York Film Festival, “Life of Pi” is being released nationwide tomorrow by 20th Century Fox. It seems destined to fill the “Hugo” slot during this year’s awards season for its status as a heavily effects-driven and sentimentally involving epic, and an even greater shot at awards acclaim due to the popularity of the book. Conversely, the awards season is already very crowded and the film may have a hard time maintaining its long-term box office viability with the flood of contenders filling theaters next month.
Editor’s note: A version of this review originally ran during the 2012 New York Film Festival.