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Ang Lee’s new movie had me in its visual grip before the exquisite opening credits were through. Demonstrating the film’s delicate mastery of 3-D, and setting the tone for the magical realism that dominates the story, the credit sequence is among the most beautiful ever committed to film. Exotic, colorful animals roam through a free-ranging zoo in India as alphabet letters from the titles are subtly reshaped into the animals portrayed on the screen. Objects are not permanent, life is always changing, meaning is a slippery thing – ever-shifting and -adjusting: We are lulled by the eternal knowledge this credit sequence conveys and ready ourselves to submit to the film’s enchanting spell.
Soon, however, Life of Pi leaves the stunning Indian garden and drops us into an ordinary Montreal apartment. Here the grown subject of the film – a man nicknamed Pi (Irrfan Khan) – is being interviewed by a character called the Writer (Rafe Spall). Pi promises to tell the Writer a story that will make him “believe in God.” Right there, the magical spell lifts and the film clunks toward Earth with this bald statement of purpose. Moreover, believe in which God? Pi, who was born a Hindu to not-terribly-devout parents, adopts the religions of Christianity and Islam in his youth as adjuncts to his actively pursued Hindu practices. Life of Pi, which is adapted from the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, starts to feel like a religious parable, as though it were a moral fable like the ones that involve Daniel and the Lion or the elephant-headed deity Ganesh. And what if a viewer gets to the end of Life of Pi, fully in thrall to the film’s majestic narrative abilities, but still unconvinced of the existence of God? Is that to be regarded as a failure of the film – or merely the failure of a character in the movie?
Setting aside the story’s fuzzy theological concerns, Life of Pi is an extraordinarily accomplished film. It would seem few artists other than the chameleonic Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) would dare select Martel’s “unfilmable novel” about a teenage boy and a Bengal tiger adrift in the ocean for 227 days. It’s a tale that employs some of the most modern technology in its production design – using computer-generated imagery that’s virtually undetectable to relate the film’s more phantasmagorical aspects with the ravenous tiger and the mercurial sea, colors that exude hues that are more painterly and imagined than anything found in the natural world, and 3-D that enriches the images rather than blowing them out of proportion. The story is gripping, and the first-time performance by the actor playing the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) is graceful and effortless, especially in light of him being the only human being onscreen for nearly half the film.
When adrift with Pi and the tiger on the open sea, the film is at its most wondrous: a ravishing spectacle that treads judiciously on the infinite line between what’s possible and impossible. Then Life of Pi returns to its framing story in Montreal and splashes about in its shallow waters. A particularly ill-advised closing stanza presents an alternate story to satisfy the nonbelievers, but proves to be one throwdown too many. Life of Pi, ironically, soars when it confines itself to land and sea; when it grasps for the celestial, the film goes beyond its reach.