Everything looks beautiful in Life of Pi. The dangerous animals look beautiful. The terrible storms look beautiful. The crashing ocean waves, the twinkling stars, the wondrous carnivorous island on which the hero at one point lands — pure gorgeousness, shimmering with all the wow that superlative 3-D technology has to offer. All that luster reflects how devoted director Ang Lee is to his latest undertaking, an adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-seller about a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi who survives a shipwreck and crosses the Pacific in a lifeboat. Pi does so alone — except for the temporary company of a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, and the ongoing companionship of a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
As millions of readers know, the hero’s full name is Piscine Molitor Patel. His father owned a zoo and the whole family is emigrating (with all the animals) on a ship to Canada when disaster hits. Telling you this gives away nothing, since in the screenplay by David Magee (Finding Neverland) the particulars are shared from the outset by the middle-aged Pi (a dignified, gentle Irrfan Khan), who recounts his tale to a visitor in his home. (As that slack-jawed guest, Rafe Spall wears a glazed expression of wonder, seen in the close-up study of his little teeth — which becomes a distraction.)
As adult Pi spins his yarn, we begin to see that it is mostly the story of a boy and a tiger in a boat for a long time. And about the fantastical things that happen throughout the boy’s ordeal. And about how the boy thinks about God while he’s on that boat, surrounded by endless water. (Raised a Hindu, Pi also embraces Christianity and Islam; Martel’s book is nothing if not a can’t-we-all-get-along prayer for religious tolerance.) The story is very nice. So is newcomer Suraj Sharma, as the teenage Pi. But both he and the movie kept this viewer at a distance, my spiritual self unroused. Watching the director’s first 3-D project, I found myself drifting off, thinking, ”How did Ang Lee make that CG tiger look so excellently tiger-y? How did he make the stars so twinkly?” And then I thought, ”Gee, the director has worked so hard on this, and so meticulously. What craftsmanship!” But that’s not the same thing as being swept away.
Martel’s bigger theme is about the narratives we all tell to keep ourselves afloat — whoppers and prayers, diversions and dreams. Lee’s bigger theme isn’t God or survival, but the awesome adventure of making the imaginary visible, the adventure of making movies. B+