A literal crouching tiger is merely one of many visual wonders in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” a gently transporting work of all-ages entertainment that melds a harrowing high-seas adventure with a dreamy meditation on the very nature of storytelling. Summoning the most advanced digital-filmmaking technology to deliver the most old-fashioned kind of audience satisfaction, this exquisitely beautiful adaptation of Yann Martel’s castaway saga has a sui generis quality that’s never less than beguiling, even if its fable-like construction and impeccable artistry come up a bit short in terms of truly gripping, elemental drama.
Following its opening-night world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the Nov. 21-slated Fox release should find itself in exceedingly friendly B.O. waters at home and abroad. That the film was lensed in 3D should further boost its prospects, and discerning viewers will be pleased to note that the format has been used here to artistically as well as commercially productive ends.
Published in 2001, Martel’s Booker Prize-winning bestseller was widely deemed unfilmable due to its allegorical thrust and, more crucially, its prolonged focus on a teenage boy and a tiger spending 227 days adrift in the Pacific. Fortunately, Lee and scribe David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) have extracted the book’s inherently cinematic qualities, turning Martel’s vivid wildlife descriptions into a feast for the eyes; the film’s sheer beauty is so overwhelming, so vibrant in its use of color, as to become almost cloying at times.
The visual lushness is apparent from the opening shots of Pondicherry, India, a former French colony where Santosh Patel (Adil Hussain) and his wife (Tabu) operate a zoo. The younger of their two sons is Piscine (played by Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon at ages 5 and 11, respectively), a bright, curious child whose sense of mischief is tempered by his unusual reverence for God.
The humorous highlights of the boy’s upbringing — how he wisely shortens his name to Pi and becomes a devout Hindu, Christian and Muslim — are recounted by his middle-aged, modern-day counterpart (Irrfan Khan). Dreamlike dissolves help ease the script’s shifts between past and present, which feel clunky and prosaic even as they lay the groundwork for the slippery metaphysical questions that will arise later.
Fortunately, the framing device disappears almost entirely at the 40-minute mark, as the story proper starts and the picture truly begins to cast a spell. Having decided to sell the zoo and move to Canada, the Patels find themselves, along with a few remaining animals, aboard a Japanese freighter that swiftly capsizes in a thunderstorm, leaving 17-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) the sole human survivor as he manages to climb into a lifeboat.
It’s an astonishing sequence, rendered all the more so by the lucidity of the direction; rather than resorting to herky-jerky lensing and editing, Lee uses relatively long takes, smooth cuts and seamlessly integrated f/x to navigate the viewer through the action. Even as the waves heave and roll (to especially fearsome effect in 3D), the film finds room for isolated moments of haunting poetry, such as the sight of the ship’s ghostly white lights descending into the abyss.
Once the storm retreats, Pi realizes a few zoo denizens have made it onto the lifeboat, although the food chain soon dictates that the only remaining animal onboard is a ferocious 450-pound Bengal tiger, incongruously named Richard Parker. Pi realizes he’s going to have to tame the tiger, a thinly veiled metaphor for his own inner beast, and as the days stretch into weeks and months, the relationship between these two unlikely companions shifts movingly, and almost imperceptibly, from mutual wariness into something as close to love as the laws of interspecies friendship can allow.
Despite such severe dramatic limitations, there’s no shortage of incident and surprise, even when Lee isn’t rattling the audience with shots of the tiger lunging at the camera. The film’s engrossing, often amusing midsection amounts to a practical illustration of survival-at-sea strategies, as Pi constructs a raft that provides some physical distance and protection from Richard Parker and finds ways to supplement his dwindling store of water and rations. Sharma, a non-pro making a terrifically engaging screen debut, underwent considerable weight fluctuations for the role, and he compellingly manifests Pi’s physical sufferings while maintaining a persuasive rapport with his four-legged co-star (achieved almost entirely through CGI and modeled after four actual Bengal tigers).
Lee and d.p. Claudio Miranda approach the technical challenges with similarly intense commitment. Shooting in the world’s largest self-generating wave tank (with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons), they turn their visual restrictions into virtues. The nimbly circling camera is forever finding compelling angles on the action, sometimes bobbing gently above and below the water’s surface, conveying a sense of perpetual motion that might test some of the more sensitive stomachs in the audience. Yet the images just as often have a classical stillness and grandeur, as in a scene of bioluminescent fish illuminating the water at night, or an otherworldly shot of the boat gliding atop the ocean’s smooth, glassy surface.
In these moments, “Life of Pi” embodies its protagonist’s spiritual devotion, infusing a tale of peril, isolation and loss with a genuine sense of grace and awe at the majesty of creation. The overall effect of such exalted yet artificially achieved visuals is to loose the boundaries of conventional realism and steer the picture into a magically heightened realm, immersing the viewer in the story without losing sight of the fact that a story, in fact, is all it is.
For all the splendor of the craftsmanship on display, from David Gropman’s eye-popping production design to Mychael Danna’s Indian-inflected score, what’s missing is a certain in-the-moment urgency. Compressing nearly eight months into roughly 75 minutes of screentime is a tricky task, and one never gets a sense of the agonizing duration of Pi’s experience, especially since the film tastefully sidesteps most of the raw, physically extreme details that made the novel so visceral. As much as it teems with color and creativity, “Life of Pi” could have used a bit more grit, substance and a touch of the grotesque. Even its warm-hearted plea for religious faith feels, in the end, like so much pantheistic fairy dust.
The film was reviewed from an unfinished print (identical to the version that will play NYFF) with complete end credits and excellent sound and picture quality, apart from some infrequent aspect-ratio disparities that will likely be finessed before release.