“Life of Pi” may not be the best film of the year, but it seems unlikely there’s a film that’s better looking.
Directed lovingly by Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), “Life of Pi” is a spectacular visual achievement that takes advantage of 3-D better than any movie since “Avatar,” immersing the viewer in a lush and slightly surreal world of color, shape and movement.
The film tells the tale of precocious Indian boy Pi Patel and his grand adventure. The first part of the movie covers Pi’s back story: how he got his odd name, his experiences at the family zoo and a spiritual experimentation that makes him the world’s first devout Hindu Christian Muslim.
Eventually, however, the family has to pack up its animals and head off on a slow boat to Canada, and that’s when the movie really gains life.
The ship capsizes, and Pi — a remarkable Suraj Sharma, who had never acted before — finds himself on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
How can a young boy — even an inventive one — co-exist with a hungry tiger? Faith? Luck? Ingenuity? Fate? It’s a question that Lee makes interesting and worthwhile.
Interspersed with Sharma’s adventure are scenes with a grown-up Pi (Irrfan Khan) being interviewed by a Canadian writer (Rafe Spall). Fortunately, the snippets — originally filmed with Tobey Maguire as the writer but reshot when Lee decided a name actor might be distracting — are mostly quick enough not to take away from the almost dream-like survival tale.
Sharma is genuine and sympathetic as Pi, while his companion, Richard Parker, may be the most life-like CGI creation yet put on the big screen. All but a few shots of the tiger are generated by computer technicians.
The conclusion of the film isn’t as good as the hypnotic middle, but it is thought provoking and open to wide interpretation. Though spirituality is a part of the movie, it doesn’t take over the film.
At its heart, “Life of Pi” is a grand adventure, one that is appropriate for the whole family and one that should be seen on the big screen, not the home theater.
Rental Recommendation: The best movie in Ang Lee’s extremely diverse filmography is “Brokeback Mountain.”
Email Steve Ouellette: email@example.com