Dodging the difficulties of the source material like Pi dodges the tiger as they float in the same boat far out to sea, Ang Lee defies the large expectations and creates a really solid film that starts slow (like the book) but becomes an arresting and emotional experience that is an incredible visual eyegasm, using 3-D as part of the entire experience instead of a cheesy gimmick. Everything is gorgeous: the rolling ocean, the real and CGI animals, the hallucinogenic dream sequences. Not unlike last year's Hugo, Life of Pi is a story for every age group that has a wondrous quality that reaffirms the hope that cinema can make a viewer feel, and although some of the lessons--about the power of divinity and the importance of storytelling--are obvious and not too deep, Lee's poetic cameras sail the film almost into my list of the year's best.
The Pi of the film's title is Piscine Patel, and he's played by three different actors during three different time periods. The film starts with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his life story to a writer looking for inspiration. As a young boy, Pi was picked on for his name (the local child bullies called him "Pissing"). His family owned a zoo full of exotic and dangerous creatures. Ever curious about life and the reason for "being", he begins to fall in love with the curiosity of religion, adapting certain beliefs from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Eventually, Pi's father decides that the Zoo isn't profitable anymore: he's going to move his family and all of the animals across the ocean on a big ship, settling in Canada and selling the creatures for a profit.
The film goes from slow to stupendous during this trip across the sea. Pi is now a teenager, and he's portrayed by Suraj Sharma. His performance is the second best part of Life of Pi after the technical aspects: Sharma showcases a curiosity and kindness that helps ground the overpowering beauty of the film. It's no secret that the large ship (during a very large storm) succumbs to the hungry ocean and Pi escapes to the lifeboat with a few furry friends (or foes...). Pi must brave every aspect of the sea to survive. He keeps his mind occupied by trying to tend to the tiger instead of trying to get rid of it (he even saves its life at one point instead of letting it drown in a particularly sad scene). Does Pi find God? Can religion save him from the deep depths of the ocean? Or will his hope and will to survive come from different means?
Who really cares? Just look at how gosh darn pretty that 3-D is! It really is maybe the best use ever. It doesn't smash you over the head with jumpy things flying at you. It really adds another dimension to the film, which is rare in 3-D in this day and age. Enough can't be said about how good Life of Pi looks: you're doing yourself a disservice if you're planning on viewing the film once it gets released on Blu-Ray (Jesus...don't tell me you were going to watch it on DVD quality). See it in the theater with the annoying 3-D glasses, preferably on the biggest screen possible.
I won't ruin it for non-book readers, but the ending of Life of Pi (the book and the film) gives the viewer/reader a disturbing choice. This choice becomes an open-ended question that a viewer could ponder for as long as they desired. It's too bad that some of Pi's curiosities about life and its lessons before that reveal are simple and are not cause for too much thought. Ultimately, Lee's version of Life of Pi is just as enjoyable as the very popular book, due to it's incredible beauty and poetic nature. But since the film's technical aspects are so impressive and its story a bit easy, I found it hard not to judge this book by its cover. (B+)