Like Martin Scorsese's "Hugo" last year, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is a daring fable about a boy learning to survive after the loss of his parents. It's also an adaptation of a beloved book rendered in fantastical detail by an Oscar-winning director experimenting with 3-D imagery in the most fascinating way.
Before we meet the boy, Lee and screenwriter David Magee (adapting Yann Martel's acclaimed novel) introduces us to the man he will become: Pi Patel (played by the Indian actor Irrfan Khan). Pi invites a journalist (Rafe Spall) into his Montreal home to tell him the amazing story of his life. Every aspect of Pi's life, even his unusual name, is the springboard for a fascinating yarn and Khan, as Pi, spins them gracefully and charmingly.
The teen Pi (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) is a self-taught student of many religions, and the son of a zookeeper (Adil Hussain) in Pondicherry, India. When the Patels leave India for Canada, many of Father's animals accompany the family on their freighter. One night, a raging storm sinks the ship, and the only survivors are Pi and a handful of zoo animals including a ravenous Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. (Yes, there's a story to explain how the tiger got that name.)
The bulk of the movie takes place on the open ocean, on a lifeboat that Pi must share with the tiger. What happens to the other animals is the basis for another story, one that provides the movie a thought-provoking punchline. Pi must build a raft, so he can sleep safely away from Richard Parker. He also learns to fish, not only for his own sustenance but to feed the tiger so that the beast doesn't eat him.
Lee captures both the harrowing realities of Pi's survival tale and the moments of wonder when Pi experiences the ocean's harsh beauty from iridescent sea life to a floating island of algae, all beautifully rendered in 3-D. And he makes the technical challenges of capturing Martel's story seem almost effortless in their artistry. (The ocean scenes were shot in a Taiwan water tank, and both a real tiger and a computer-generated facsimile were used to simulate Richard Parker's noble ferocity)
Lee is a master storyteller, as proved by his long and varied resume that includes the kung-fu spectacle "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and the emotional "Brokeback Mountain." With "Life of Pi," Lee tells a story about the power of storytelling and how those stories don't just illuminate a life, they can sometimes save one.
'Life of Pi'
A teen and a tiger survive a shipwreck in this visually wondrous and emotionally riveting adaptation of Yann Martel's beloved novel.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Wednesday, Nov. 21.
Rating • PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril.
Running time • 125 minutes.