One boy's struggle to survive being shipwrecked at sea with a fierce Bengal tiger becomes a poetic meditation on faith and perseverance in Ang Lee's Life of Pi, a stunningly gorgeous adventure drama with a rich spiritual subtext. It's largely a one-man show that seduces us with lucid 3D imagery, and it resonates as a drama thanks to newcomer Suraj Sharma's ability to convincingly alternate between youthful vulnerability and ageless bravery as his character experiences an intense crisis of faith.
As the film opens, a young writer (Rafe Spall) sits across from Pi (Irrfan Khan) and waits to hear a story so incredible that it will shake the foundations of the skeptical scribe's beliefs. The tale begins innocently enough, with a young Pi (Sharma) attempting to establish his spiritual identity while growing up on the grounds of his family's zoo in a French region of India. Yet just as Pi begins to experience the joys of first love, his father announces that the family will soon be starting a new life in Winnipeg. The clan and all of their exotic animals travel to Canada by boat, but a massive storm sends the vessel plunging to the ocean floor, with the terrified Pi, an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker just barely managing to escape in a lifeboat. After the skies clear and the wild animals begin to clash, Pi finds himself alone in the middle of the ocean with Richard Parker as he prays for a rescue that never comes. In the days and weeks that follow, Pi and Richard Parker establish a mutually respectful bond that helps both to endure when it seems that all hope is lost. It's only later, when a pair of Japanese insurance adjustors turn up seeking to verify Pi's remarkable story, that we discover the crucial role that faith played in keeping him alive on the open seas.
The first thing that grabs you about Life of Pi is Claudio Miranda's lush, intoxicatingly vivid cinematography. Opening with shots of the animals in Pi's father's zoo, director Lee establishes a peaceful, Zen-like tone as Miranda's camerawork brings to mind groundbreaking nature documentaries like the recent Planet Earth or the gorgeous Born to Be Wild. Subsequently introducing us to the protagonist as he begins to share his tale with the eager young writer, screenwriter David Magee endears us to Pi by offering a glimpse of the childhood events that would shape his spiritual beliefs and personality. Whether peppering Pi's memories of his beloved uncle with gentle humor, portraying an early bout of heartbreak with poignant brevity, or showing a painful life lesson that will later play a crucial role in the plot, Magee front-loads Life of Pi with a profundity that's perfectly complemented by Miranda's gorgeous images and Lee's inspired stylistic flourishes. The talents of all three coalesce beautifully, giving the film a rich sense of soul-searching that's violently shattered when the boat carrying Pi and his family to their new lives sinks in a scene that's sure to be remembered as one of the most intense and awe-inspiring shipwrecks ever portrayed on film. An unforgettable shot of Pi sinking beneath the waves as the massive ship plummets into the abyss is positively breathtaking, and young star Sharma handles the physically and emotionally demanding scene like a seasoned pro.
Later, as the film settles into the rhythms of Pi's epic struggle to survive being stranded at sea with a traumatized (and hungry) Bengal tiger, Sharma remains in top form as Lee and Miranda turn what could have been a stagy section of the movie into a thing of visual splendor. Likewise, Magee's screenplay keeps things consistently interesting by conveying just what a profound effect the experience is having on Pi as he faces a series of unexpected challenges. It's never dull or repetitive, and by taking us inside of Pi's head as he fights to keep himself and Richard Parker alive, the filmmakers give a rather simple story compelling depth.
At times it feels as if each scene in Life of Pi is more beautifully rendered than the last -- not just visually, but subtextually as well. By the time Pi reveals a side of the story few would see coming, the development catches us off guard without feeling gimmicky; it adds to the film's reflective tone rather than detracting from it, and ends Pi's incredible tale on a note that's deeply spiritual without being preachy. That's a particularly fine line to walk, but in the capable hands of Lee and company, it's done with flawless balance.