Let’s get it out of the way: If you’re going to see “Life of Pi,” you must see it in 3-D.
If you saw “Avatar” or “Hugo” in 2-D, you saw flatter versions of those movies. But if you see “Life of Pi” in 2-D, you will not be seeing “Life of Pi.” It would be like a comic book with words but no pictures. Ang Lee, in his best work since “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” makes 3-D integral to the storytelling in this miracle of a film.
Lee’s film is based on the bestselling 2002 novel by Yann Martel, which often has been called unfilmable. Lee answers that challenge by turning “Life of Pi” into one of the most filmic works of art ever made. By coincidence, “Life of Pi” arrives a few weeks after another visionary adaptation of an “unfilmable” novel, “Cloud Atlas,” but where “Cloud Atlas” is a complex anthology, “Life of Pi” tells a very simple story.
The bulk of the film, as in the novel, is set on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific. The lifeboat’s only passengers are a 16-year-old boy and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. They are the only survivors after a cargo ship carrying zoo animals from India to America sinks in a storm.
The boy’s family owned the zoo. The tiger, nicknamed Richard Parker, is the one zoo animal the boy’s father taught him to fear. Only a flimsy tarpaulin separates them on the high seas.
We are introduced to the boy as a middle-aged man, played by the familiar Irrfan Khan (“Slumdog Millionaire”) living in Canada. He shares his extraordinary story of survival with a writer (Rafe Spall), who is interviewing him for a book. The writer is an invisible presence in Martel’s novel, and the interview format is an unfortunately pedestrian framing device for an otherwise wondrous film, and it has damaging consequences later on.
The boy’s name is Pi Patel. Pi is short for Piscine, the French word for swimming pool. There is an amusing story behind this, just as there are amusing stories behind most of the film’s incongruous character traits. Say the word “piscine” aloud, placing the stress on the first syllable, a few times and you will hear why a schoolboy would wish to shorten the name.
The older Pi being interviewed flashes back to his boyhood in southern India, where the family zoo places the Garden of Eden on his doorstep. Young Pi, played by Suraj Sharma, happily worships three religions, Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam. He is attracted not so much to their tenets as their stories. He learned of Hinduism through comic books.
“The gods were my superheroes growing up,” he said.
The line stated several times is Pi’s story of the tiger and the lifeboat “will make you believe in God.” For a movie with overt religious themes, though, the ultimate religious moral in “Life of Pi” is ambivalent.
Pi’s carefree childhood comes to an end when his father (Adil Hussain), worried about India’s changing political climate in the mid 1970s, announces he will sell the zoo and transplant his family to Canada. As already noted, they don’t get far.
Lee employs fanciful imagery in the run-up to the ocean voyage, especially a realization of Pi’s comic-book theology, but “Life of Pi” comes to glorious life when the story shifts away from India. The shipwreck sequence, which lasts about 10 minutes, is more wrenching than the whole of James Cameron’s “Titanic.”
A few other zoo animals share the lifeboat with Pi after the ship sinks, but they don’t last long. The meat of the film is the relationship that forms between the boy and the tiger. After attempts to tame Richard Parker fail, Pi resorts to trying to train the beast like a circus animal.
If the idea of a movie that takes place aboard a lifeboat suggests the claustrophobia of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” forget that notion. Lee opens up the screen to reveal the vastness of the sea (and here we are reminded that Pi’s name is a mathematics symbol of the infinite). Just the other day, a commenter on Roger Ebert’s Facebook page noted that the desert was the true star of “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the sea is the true star of “Life of Pi.”
Lee’s imagination never ceases to seize upon new ways to depict the sea. This portion of the film becomes a museum gallery unto itself, with a series of paintings representing new aspects of the sea – its calm, its beauty, its ferocity, but above all, its limitlessness. Twice during the film, once at day and once at night, the sea becomes indistinguishable from the sky, and the lifeboat seems to float eerily in space.
Lee’s use of 3-D photography enhances his portrait of the sea. It extends toward us as well as away from us. We see it from above the surface as well as from below. We look toward the nothingness on the horizon and feel Pi’s isolation.
Amazingly, little of this is real. Actor Sharma was never in the lifeboat with an actual tiger. Most of the time we are seeing an utterly convincing computer-animated tiger, and the few times a real tiger appears, it has been composited into the scene through another form of computer magic. The endless sea also is computer-generated. “Life of Pi” is more of a special effects movie than “Star Wars,” but many of its effects are invisible.
Even with its religious and philosophical overtones, “Life of Pi” is a classic survival and adventure story with strains of Robert Louis Stephenson and Ernest Hemingway. Pi’s brief landfall on an uninhabited island has clear references to Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
After weaving a spell that leaves the audience awestruck for two hours, Lee and screenwriter David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) do about the worst thing they could possibly do to “Life of Pi.” They assault their ephemeral construct with a jackhammer of literalness when that dad-blasted writer spells out the story’s symbolism. This would be like Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation (also in 3-D) of “The Great Gatsby” including a moment when an unnamed yokel says to the title character, “Gee, Mr. Gatsby, you keep looking at that green light at the end of the dock as if it represents your unfulfilled yearning for Daisy Buchanan.”
This final scene doesn’t ruin “Life of Pi,” but it is a curious and terrible way to finish an outstanding film. It’s like watching an exquisite performance of “Swan Lake” end with a belly flop into the orchestra pit.