"LIFE OF PI" — ★★★★ — Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall; PG (emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action scenes and peril); general release
Science and spirit, technology and transcendence may sometimes be at war, but in "Life of Pi" — Ang Lee's spectacular take on the popular Yann Martel novel — they instead make for graceful dance partners.
The story of a boy who finds his faith challenged after being stranded at sea with only wild animals for company is made stunningly real by the latest developments in computer graphics and 3-D cinematography.
The result is that a book that many might have considered best kept on the printed page comes rapturously alive on screen.
"Life of Pi" is told in flashback with the adult Piscine Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan), an Indian immigrant living in Montreal, is recounting his incredible life to a disspirited author (Rafe Spall) on the hunt for something to write about. And the tale he tells is an unbelievable one.
Back in India, Patel's idiosyncratic dad (Adil Hussain) not only had a touch of the poet in him — naming his son after a Parisian swimming-pool complex, the Piscine Molitor — but also ran a small zoo.
Life is pretty good for the Patels, especially young Piscine (Suraj Sharma) who calls himself Pi. He is one of the most clever kids in his class and often wonders about the Big Questions. He declares at one point that he's Hindu, Muslim and Christian, much to the consternation of his Hindu mom, non-believing dad and not particularly interested brother (Ayan Khan).
Then Pi's world is turned upside down when the family decides to move to Canada, bringing their menagerie with them on what would be a slow, tortuous journey across the Pacific. Tragedy strikes when a violent storm sinks the ship, killing nearly everyone on board. Pi mananges to make his way onto a lifeboat — as do several of the animals, including a Bengal tiger (cheekily named Richard Parker), a wounded zebra, an orangutan, and a snarling hyena in an especially bad mood (not that you can blame him).
If handled badly, this is when "Life of Pi" could have veered into silliness. But Lee, along with scriptwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") and cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "TRON: Legacy") manage to keep the fantastic credible.
This is no Dr. Doolittle or Noah and his docile herds. With both the hyena and tiger hungry and aggressive, there are moments of dread, panic and terror that may be too intense for some younger viewers. At this point, you stop wondering what's real and what's CGI and start ducking.
Yet there is beauty amid the isolation as well. When schools of flourescent fish light up the sea underneath a weary Pi, it's a wondrous splash of visual splendor in a movie filled with them.
Student-turned-actor Sharma, in his first role, deserves major kudos as he carries the entire movie on his slim shoulders, having only animals, God and green-screen technology to talk to through much of the film. And Lee also should be congratulated for taking a long-gestating project (director M. Night Shyamalan was once supposed to make it) and using a cast of unknowns, despite the pressure of having to have star power in a big-budget Hollywood movie. (Lee did shoot scenes with Tobey Maguire as the writer but cut them and reportedly purposely recast the part with someone less famous.)
Exactly what happens to Pi on his misadventure, and how it affects him, may make for lively discussion around the turkey this holiday season. But there should be no argument that Lee has made one of the year's most impressive films.
"Life of Pi," is rated PG for emotional thematic content throughout, some scary action scenes and peril; running time: 127 minutes.