Life of Pi, Yann Martel's fantastical folk parable about faith and spirituality, makes the journey to the big screen more or less intact, a meditative film by Ang Lee with many of the same virtues and shortcomings of the 2001 novel.
It's an inscrutable morality tale for much of its length that explains itself, rather too overtly (like the novel) in the end, as if the author figures we need help. But its pleasures are undeniable and its mysteries rewarding to contemplate. In Lee's hands, a seemingly unfilmable fairy tale comes to life.
A survival-at-sea story is framed within the conversation of a frustrated novelist (Rafe Spall) who has been sent to meet a man (Irrfan Khan) who endured 227 days adrift in a lifeboat. The novelist has been told the man's tale "would make me believe in God."
But Pi's autobiography is too magical, far-fetched and "literary" to be believed.
Take the character's name: an Indian boy, raised in a zoo, named "Piscine" after a favorite relative's love of swimming pools. The precocious child endures profane teasing about his name just long enough to invent his own nickname. He is "Pi," like that magical mathematical constant, and his way of making sure the name sticks is one of the film's funnier indulgences.
Pi grows up in 1950s India, a brilliant child whose curiosity ranges from religions to the animals in his father's menagerie. Pi is also a committed vegetarian who reaches young adulthood only through the intervention of his no-nonsense father, who preaches that "religion is darkness" and warns against expecting to have a meeting of the minds with the zoo's resident Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker. The tiger would surely eat him, no matter how kind he is to it.
That is put to the test when the family sells the zoo, and the ship they and the animals are on sinks in the deepest corner of the Pacific. Pi (Suraj Sharma) finds himself on the lone lifeboat, stranded with an injured zebra, a mourning orangutan, a crazed hyena — and Richard Parker.
Lee (Brokeback Mountain) makes this odd ark convincing, thanks to a seamless blending of real and digitally tamed animals. The boat is just big enough to hide most of its inhabitants long enough for each to make an entrance. There is just enough gear — food, water, life jackets — for Pi to keep his distance from the two critters who surely will kill him when starvation sets in.
Special effects render the barren, glassy sea into a dreamland of illuminated jellyfish, serendipitous flying fish, overly playful whales, sharks that are scarier than the tiger and just enough food to keep the boy alive and to keep the peace with the tiger. No matter how dire circumstances turn, Lee finds playful and mystical touches to animate a fairly static story.
There is a tendency among those from outside India to confer guru status on stories there, a cliché the novel embraces and Lee is not above falling into. Lee also must return, again and again, to the act of storytelling. Khan (A Mighty Heart, The Namesake, last summer's Amazing Spider-Man) is an interesting actor, but these static storytelling scenes play like the last third of a sermon that's gone on too long.
Still, the cryptic, spiritual nature of the story — the metaphorical treatment of faith — blesses Pi with at least a hint of the vision-quest gravitas that the character, the author and the filmmaker were going for. Lee, whose last film, Taking Woodstock, grasped at but never quite got the "moment" of Woodstock, is on much surer ground with this parable for a spiritually adrift age.