So many books have been deemed unfilmable for the screenâ€”they were right with Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”â€”and yet “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy has been made into a pretty great trilogy of films and most recently “Cloud Atlas.” Now, there’s “Life of Pi,” the adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 best-selling novel. Bringing the fable to life, director Ang Lee (2000’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain”) and screenwriter David Magee (2008’s “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) have created an enthralling odyssey, an exquisite visual marvel, and altogether an astonishing experience filled with awe, wonder, and resonance.
To a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall), Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) shares a remarkable story that will make him believe in God. He was named after a French swimming pool and then changed his name to the mathematical constant from being harassed at school with the nickname “Pissing Patel.” Raised a Hindu by his family that own a zoo in Pondicherry, India, the boy finds his own path by also studying Christianity and Islam. By his teens, Pi (Suraj Sharma) and his family have to make the move to Canada, so they embark on a cargo freighter, with their exotic animals in tow. Eventually, the ship runs into a heavy storm and Pi goes on deck to watch but ends up being the only survivor on a lifeboat. The crew and Pi’s family go down with the sinking ship, and by morning, Pi wakes up in the lifeboat with an injured zebra, a vicious hyena, an orangutan, and a growling, hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Once the tiger and Pi are left, the boy must tame the beast before they both try to survive staying afloat in the Pacific. His faith in the divine is tested for 227 days.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma is note-perfect as the teenage Pi and acts quite well in total isolation with his co-star, a photorealistic CG tiger (with some real tigers standing in on occasion). The striped kitty-cat never comes off like an invariable visual effect but a living, breathing animal with as much soul as a human character, which is quite a feat in these days of computer animation. It doesn’t take long to remind viewers of Tom Hanks and Wilson the Volleyball being marooned on that island in “Cast Away.”
James Cameron’s “Avatar” seems to be the golden standard of 3-D moviemaking that transports and immerses the viewer into a vivid otherworld. About those visualsâ€¦Combining resplendent cinematography by Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and visual effects, the clear waters that Pi and his companion drift upon are visions of wondrous beauty. In one scene, Pi writes an S.O.S. letter in a bottle as the fluffy clouds and the golden sun reflect upon the ocean, and the sight is simply spellbinding. Other divine moments include a dark night on the deep blue sea being lit up by what appear to be thousands of luminous jellyfish, as well a mysterious island populated by meerkats and carnivorous algae. If the imagery isn’t majestic enough, the use of 3-D is not a gimmick but an artful tool that enhances color and depth of field. And since “Avatar,” it’s the most transcendent use of the third dimension so far.
However, “Life of Pi” isn’t just pretty pictures. There’s no doubt about it, Lee has mastered a beaut, but this is also an emotional and spiritual motion picture. Given the framing device with the adult Pi telling his story to the writer, we know that the storyteller survives after being lost at sea, but suspense is never lost. We actually care what happens to Pi and Richard Parker. In fact, the scenes bookending the magical realism should get in the way but do not, forming a bridge that actually makes the spiritual undertones more digestible. A deeper meaning is obviously at work in this elegantly simple story, connecting allegorical themes of surviving insurmountable odds and religious faith. Not dissimilar to “The Chronicles of Narnia” novels and books, where the lion Aslan symbolized God, there are symbols here. Fortunately, Lee and Magee are careful to give us the option of how literally or as metaphorically we interpret the tale without beating us over the head with Sunday School preachiness and pat platitudes.
Although a film set on the ocean with no one else around but the creatures of the deep could flirt with tedium, Lee makes the feeling of isolation palpable through his wide-open frame and intoxicating pacing. Harrowing, stirring, and utterly magical, “Life of Pi” stands as Lee’s next magnum opus. It won’t make atheists believe in God, but the film holds more than enough credibility to believe such a fantastical parable. Just see it for yourself.
127 min., rated PG.