Life of Pi is, at least visually, magnificent. Adapted from a novel about a young man adrift in the ocean who’s sharing his small boat with a tiger, Ang Lee’s latest is this year’s Hugo: an intimate, (technically) superheroless story delivered in 3-D. Expectedly, the glasses experience dims the often sunshiny film. But Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda still have managed to produce images as gorgeously ethereal as watercolors, including figures swimming as if through air, daytime seas with mirrorlike surfaces, and nights with starlit skies and luminescent, jellyfish-filled waters. And when the director offers a closeup of the tiger wryly known as Richard Parker, well, looking into its fiery eyes is just breathtaking.
Narratively, the film skews toward ponderous and sometimes genuinely thought-provoking moments. It’s framed somewhat clunkily, with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his story to an author (a terrible, flat Rafe Spall in a role originally meant for Tobey Maguire): He and his family were relatively happy running a zoo in India. But when times got tough, Pi’s father (Adil Hussain) decided to move the clan and a few animals to Canada to start fresh. “We will sail like Columbus!” his dad said. To which the exasperated young Pi (Suraj Sharma) replies, “But Columbus was looking for India!”
But during their journey, they’re struck by a storm, and Pi is separated from his family, left alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena, and, he soon discovers, a Bengal tiger. When the other animals quickly die, Pi is left figuring out how to live harmoniously with the tiger, not only trying to avoid being ravaged by the animal but ideally learning how to feed them both until they’re saved.
The situation is precarious and gripping enough, but the most interesting ideas in Life of Pi are presented before the storm strikes, as Pi describes his youth. Religion is the overriding theme here, with his father, a proponent of “thinking rationally,” describing faith as “darkness.” Young Pi (Ayush Tandon), however, is fascinated by organized religion—every one of them. Embracing bits of everything from Hinduism (“we get to feel guilty before hundreds of gods”) to Catholicism (though he believes that the idea of Christ “made no sense”), Pi willfully bucks his father’s atheism, and we understand that his cobbled-together faiths help him persevere on his unwanted adventure. With its Zenlike breadth, the topic could come across as pedantic; instead, it’s reasonably and smartly dissected, and never overplayed.
There’s a twist at the end of Life of Pi that you can’t help but mull over afterward, but what you remember most is not what you hear, but what you see. It proves that CGI and a third dimension don’t have to be tiring budget-busting gimmickry, but can be used to make art.