ANG LEE'S Life of Pi is an overblown but nonetheless quite beautiful adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 novel of the same name. Like the novel, it's a parable disguised as an adventure story; like the novel, some people will think it contains profound truths, and some will find it unbearably overwrought. Others—me!—will appreciate some of the best 3D we've seen to date, and enjoy the adventure despite its self-seriousness.
In Life of Pi's framing device, a soft-spoken Indian man, Pi (Irrfan Khan), tells a Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall, distractingly terrible) a story that promises to make the journalist "believe in god." Pi never achieves that lofty goal, a shortcoming director Ang Lee has frankly acknowledged in interviews. "I don't think this is a movie... that will make you believe in god, as they advertise it," he told Charlie Rose, "but I hope people believe in storytelling."
That's an elegant summation of the strengths and weaknesses of Lee's new film—which is, it should be noted, far better than its goofy, hyper-stylized trailer would suggest.
Pi tells the journalist the story of his childhood in India, where his father owned a zoo stocked with all the requisite animals, including a fearsome Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. The young Pi (Suraj Sharma) gravitates toward religions like other kids collect superhero comics, seeing no conflict between his interest in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The film lingers on his happy childhood, but things don't get interesting until Pi's family boards a ship bound for Canada. A storm soon upends the ship, and when the weather clears, Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and Richard Parker.
The bulk of the film is set as sea, as Pi figures out how to avoid getting eaten by a tiger while simultaneously dealing with storms, shark attacks, food shortages, and more. As he struggles to survive, the natural world provides a canvas for Lee's artful 3D, lingering on the bottomless blue ocean and the creatures that live within it, or the way a still ocean and a clear sky seem to merge. The 3D visuals are endlessly imaginative, by turns subtle and dramatic—and, when the weather gets bad, frighteningly intense.
Pi is a very faithful adaptation of Yann Martel's novel—if you felt betrayed or duped by the book's ending, all the pretty 3D in the world won't redeem the movie for you. But while Life of Pi won't make anyone believe in god who doesn't already swing that way, the film is notable for being more spiritual and less overtly Christian than most of what hits the multiplex around this time of year. In Lee's adaptation, as in Martel's novel, the story's big twist doesn't so much inspire belief in the divine as it highlights the utility of faith—take it or leave it, it's a powerful illustration.