By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Life of Pi is director Ang Lee's boldly visual interpretation of Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel, primarily set in a young boy's mind and memory. Filmed with ravishing 3-D images and a parable's pacing, the movie is everything readers would expect and perhaps puzzlement for those who haven't picked up the book.
The boy is Piscine Patel — shortened after classmates' ridicule to Pi — whose parents own a botanical garden zoo in Pondicherry, India. Hard times force the zoo's closure, with its animals loaded on a freighter ship bound for a second chance in America. Midway through the voyage a storm causes the ship to sink, leaving Pi alone in a lifeboat with several animals including Richard Parker, a 450-pound and very hungry Bengal tiger.
Yet Martel's book and now Lee's movie strive to make Life of Pi a deeper, more spiritual experience than merely Pi's survival alongside a primal enemy. That's trickier to accomplish with the literal nature of cinema than the boundless descriptions of literature.
For the most part, Lee's imagery enhances rather than overwhelms the piety, until a crucial point near the end when he drains everything beautiful from the screen including the magic so gloriously established. It's a stark, abrupt detour that doesn't quite work, and an indescribable spoiler beyond that.
But for nearly two hours prior, Life of Pi is an engrossing metaphysical adventure, befitting Pi's own curiosity about the world, nature and theologies explaining it all to believers. As a boy, Pi becomes interested in Christian and Muslim faiths, supplementing his Hindu upbringing, and this omni-dogma is a recurring comfort as his ordeal continues. Where the truth lay in Pi's surreal story isn't as vital as his faith in what he's recalling.
Pi is mostly played by teenaged newcomer Suraj Sharma, with the occasional over-eagerness of line readings and expressions to be expected from a beginner. Richard Parker is an astonishing CGI accomplishment, appearing fearsome as a big cat would be yet at times as vulnerable as the human he's terrorizing. Theirs is a unique relationship born of mutual survival, each compromising his natural instincts a bit.
Lee works small wonders with Martel's framing device, a standard flashback mode with older Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his tale to a reporter (Rafe Spall) in voiceover narration that's occasionally overused.
The strategy is elevated by pop-up book 3-D fantasies Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda devise, at times superimposing images from the past and present, highlighting the optical technique. Never has 3-D illusion been used to such pure storytelling effect, and seldom with such beauty, which is what Life of Pi will be remembered best for doing, as the shimmering circle of life and death closes on a boy and his tiger.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.