Water is the key element in Ang Lee's Life of Pi, employed by the director to flaunt a grand aesthetic and express grand existential themes. Gloriously rendered, the film best engages the 3D format when stepping into liquid, whether observing a swimmer from below or surging through an astonishing nighttime typhoon. In visualizing this spiritual survival story, which novelist Yann Martel cooked up to great acclaim in 2001, Lee often depicts the lost-at-sea protagonist, Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma), as a mere minnow in an unforgiving eternity of water, the lifeboat he shares with a Bengal tiger a vessel of insignificance. Following the awesome foundering of an animal-filled freighter, whose submerged decks and flooding hull are scanned as if from the bow of a rollercoaster, Lee's camera (entrusted to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button DP Claudio Miranda) hangs back to see Pi suspended underwater, watching helplessly as the massive ship, which also held his family, sinks before him. The frightening enormity of the image is later matched by the cool serenity of calm waters, which, through Lee's lens, meet the sky to create a seamless, dreamlike canvas, where Pi's dinghy floats like it's stranded in picturesque oblivion. There's a glut of big ideas beneath Life of Pi's surface, namely one's relationship with God, but its strongest impression, communicated in pure terms with cutting-edge means, involves the humbling vastness of life, a universal notion that, here, transcends questions of belief.
Played with poise and poignancy by Irrfan Khan, Pi is first introduced as a middle-aged man, who, naturally, tells his epic story to an eager listener. In an odd twist of adaptation, his audience is Martel himself (Rafe Spall), arriving at Pi's door at the urging of one of the survivor's relatives, and whose inquiries prompt the film's inevitable flashbacks. So begins a first act that is by turns handsome, fanciful, curious, and agonizing, charting the seeds of young Pi's spiritual growth in 1977 Pondicherry, India while shoddily leapfrogging to and from that horrid framing device (Khan provides excessive, if eloquent, narration).
After a cute bit about the origins of his name helps to establish his personality traits (like his comfort around water and his abilities with mathematics and people-pleasing), Pi is seen diving into an obsession with religion, taking an all-inclusive approach by embracing Christianity, Islam, and his family's Hinduism. At his home, which sits amid a stunning zoo his father (Adil Hussain) founded as a business, Pi makes declarations like wanting to be baptized, his family's reactions half-supporting and half-deriding his newfound pastime. "Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing," says Pi's father, offering warm wisdom but practically begging the movie to prove him wrong. Though delectably shot in a manner that feels both native and otherworldly, like it's set in an Oz as envisioned by Mira Nair, the film's long opening is remarkably twee and unambitious, playing like a family flick that might be called My First Deity Tour. Its critters and colors wow the eyes, but its theological groundwork, which features three actors playing Pi as he grows into his faith(s), is far more flat than solid.
And then the rains come. Pi may not receive the ritualistic baptism he desires, but he and the film get a doozy of a cleansing during Lee's virtuosically staged shipwreck, the unmistakable turning point for Life of Pi's merit and watchability. Like Noah robbed of his ark, Pi becomes the sole survivor of the inclement incident at sea, which cuts short his family's plans to move the entire zoo to Canada. He's eventually left in his small boat with a few four-legged stowaways: an injured zebra, an orangutan, a nasty hyena, and the tiger, Richard Parker, whose offbeat name hardly reflects the seriousness of his ferocity. Before long, after the hyena gets hungry and then becomes a meal itself, only Pi and Richard remain, forced to maintain a king-of-the-mountain-style duel over who dominates their small, shared home (Pi fashions his own floating sidecar with the lifeboat's generous wealth of supplies, but continuously climbs back aboard, striving to establish an alpha-creature stance).
The second act shifts the film from a lazy and comfy litany of introductions to a riveting fantasia of pure cinema, wherein Lee paints an oft-wordless picture of nature's harshness and grace, the perfect arena for Pi to have a Christ-like coming of age. In visual terms, what Lee simply does with marine life is staggering, pinning Pi and Richard in the path of a massive, migrating school of fish, and lighting up the evening sea with scads of bioluminescent jellyfish, whose peace is interrupted by the surface leap of a colossal blue whale. There's also a kaleidoscopic, Kubrickian dream sequence, with fauna and cosmos morphing into maternal visions. So far, no other 2012 film has so strongly outweighed its shortcomings with breathtaking spectacle, and as for Richard himself, the tiger may just be the most convincing CG animal ever animated for movie screens.
Martel's book has famously resonated with those at their own existential crossroads, as Richard can serve as a stand-in for any malady one must live with. This facet of the story comes across beautifully on screen, a manifestation of a young man's larger struggle to fight his own demons, and peacefully maintain his place in a treacherous, surrounding world where sharks roam. He's ultimately stripped of all belongings, and his and Richard's enchanted respite, a vine-laden, meerkat-filled island, proves a fatal temptation, as crutches in the race of life can so often be. With inherently spiritual components, Pi's journey strikes a humanistic chord, and just as Pi doesn't answer to a single god, it invites folks of all types to walk away with it as their own parable.
It isn't until act three that things become especially religious, as the elder Pi recounts an alternate story his younger self told investigators concerned with the sunken ship. The possible revelations of the new tale may not be shocking, but they do introduce some hefty questions about preceding events and the nature of religious fables, only to be hastily explained away so the film can rush to the credits. Such is a prime example of something that surely registered better in the book, its thin treatment confirming that writer David Magee was more ready to script action than squeeze in smart chatter about God. The result is an extraordinary quest of survival hampered by condescendingly tacked-on bookends. The film's own saving grace is its feast of magnificent imagery, which, in Lee's hands, rights wrongs by being something close to holy.