Ang Lee is unconcerned with conventionality. His career has charted a course more famously through Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the maligned Hulk and Brokeback Mountain, but also includes lesser-known radar blips like the traditional Western Ride with the Devil, the rather graphic Chinese sex flick Lust, Caution, and the 60s-era comedy Taking Woodstock. Hard to pin him down.
Maybe that’s why Ang Lee exploring 3-D is not surprising, and why choosing a film that in no way requires 3-D is even less surprising. Life of Pi is primarily a waterborne story of a boy and a tiger trapped on a boat. It also embraces faith in a way rarely seen in a movie that doesn’t star Kirk Cameron as a fireman. And it’s heavy on the talk, breaking up scenes at sea with incalculably boring exposition.
A Canadian writer had traveled to India to write a story about Portugal and hears a local legend about a boy named Pi, who — as fate would have it — now lives in Montreal. The writer meets the adult Pi (the unassailable Irrfan Khan), who weaves his amazing tale, beginning with how a boy from India winds up with the name Pi (he was named for a swimming pool in Paris, naturally, and “Piscine” took on an unfortunate connotation when he reached his teenage years).
Pi’s father owned a zoo, but, cash-strapped, decided to move the family to Canada and ship the animals with them in hopes of selling them in North America. That explains how teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) shares a lifeboat with a tiger named Richard Parker. There’s a story behind that name, too, but like the Canadian writer in India and the ridiculous detail about Piscine becoming Pi, it’s too onerous to actually count as clever.
A lot of that, to be sure, is a restriction of the source material, a 2001 best-seller by Yann Martel. Though the duration of Pi’s journey is a little hard to establish in the movie, the book ticks off 227 days floating from the Marianas Trench to Mexico. That’s not a spoiler; after all, the guy’s telling his story 30 years later, so we have a pretty good idea how this played out. Anyway, it’s not really how Pi finds land so much as how he doesn’t lose hope.
Purely on its craftsmanship, Life of Pi is quite something to look at. The 3-D is gorgeous, but it’s the CGI animals that are the real breakthrough, particularly the Bengal tiger, which is onscreen nearly as much as the main character and in various states of health.
Unfortunately, like many sermons, the story is preposterous and shallow. It owes more to hocus pocus than focus, and even a slight skeptic will easily dismiss some of its more heavenly claims. So its success depends on your spirituality and whether you want to believe. Saddling a fable like this with deeper religious meaning is also just unnecessary: We know a boy wouldn’t survive nine months in a boat with a tiger. Isn’t the fact that he does fantasy enough?
LIFE OF PI Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, directed by Ang Lee, rated PG, 127 mins.