By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – No, not that kind of pie, even if it is Thanksgiving.
Life of Pi is director Ang Lee’s movie version of author Yann Martel’s fantastical tale about a shipwreck and a 16-year-old boy’s miraculous survival after more than seven months at sea while sharing a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
The oddly compelling book certainly seemed unfilmable to this reader’s eyes, yet Lee, the Oscar-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, somehow managed to pull it off with impressive results. And while the movie has limitations resulting from its reverence for the source material, its ambition and quality are unmistakable.
The faithful screenplay by David Magee, based on Yartel’s 2001 novel, is about an Indian boy nicknamed Pi, played by newcomer Suraj Sharma, who is lost at sea after the ship carrying his zoo-owning family capsizes during a violent storm.
Everyone dies but Pi, who ends up on a small dinghy with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena, a rat, and a tiger named Richard Parker.
Let’s just say that Pi’s ark will soon be a lot less crowded and that Pi and Parker are about to become unlikely traveling companions.
The boy-versus-beast narrative of Life of Pi is related in flashbacks as the adult Pi, played by the casually mesmerizing Irrfan Khan, relates his adventure at sea when he was much younger to a Canadian journalist (Rafe Spall) as he struggles with loss, hunger, thirst, despair, faith, loneliness, and, lest we forget, that imposing tiger.
Pi’s literal and spiritual journey across the Pacific Ocean is never less than visually striking although it was shot entirely on dry land inside huge water tanks in Taiwan.
But it is the footage of the tiger, and its seamless interaction with the human protagonist, that is perhaps the film’s most staggering achievement. The vast majority of it is amazing computer-generated imagery while a few of the shots involve real tigers, but it is magically impossible to tell the difference. For a director who took deserved heat for the shoddy CGI work in Hulk, this digital accomplishment must seem especially sweet to Lee.
Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Sense and Sensibility; The Wedding Banquet; Eat Drink Man Woman) obviously loves a challenge, and in this project he takes on and conquers three filmmaking no-no’s: working with animals, kids, and water. To say nothing of 3-D.
As for the film’s celebrated “3-D-ness,” it remains to these eyes an unnecessary accoutrement. The spell that the beautifully-shot drama casts has little to do with that particular technological wrinkle, even if we do spend much of our viewing time absolutely marveling at just how Lee managed everything.
And yet, an exchange late in the game – one that will not be revealed here – offers a literary conceit that gives us pause and somewhat undermines the film’s hard-won sense of wonder. Enough said.
So we’ll tame 3 stars out of 4 – although we literal purists would much prefer to make it 3.14 out of 4 — for a ravishing coming-of-age fable about, among other things, faith and the power and importance of storytelling. Although there’s no hidden dragon in Life of Pi, the crouching tiger is a doozy.