The sea, a boy, a tiger. Director Ang Lee, a master painter of spiritual action and mesmerizing juggler of cinematic optics, knows exactly what to do with just those three components. Taken from Yann Martel’s book, with a screenplay by David Magee, “Pi” is about a boy’s journey toward God, that winds through multiple religions and a life-changing voyage.
“Life of Pi,” despite the undertow of Deepak Chopra parables, is a good story, and one of the most beautifully photographed movies ever brought to the screen.
Three actors emerge as the boy ages and finally becomes a man: Gautam Belar at 5, Ayush Tandon at 12 and Irrfan Khan as the adult writer. All three actors fill out their roles with remarkable skill.
Tandon, as the young Piscine Militor Patelll, named whimsically, “Pi” after an uncle’s favorite Parisian swimming pool, dazzles each of his school classes with his charming mathematical definition of the name.
Pi grows up in a magical India, seemingly drawn from a deep Disney theme park. It is a movie India to be sure, full of brilliant color and gorgeous people, sans disease, pollution and suffocating crowds. It’s a color postcard India, full of beautiful faces and agreeable people. All of this movie magic is, of course, necessary to stay true to the popular book and it does.
It may disturb some that Lee chooses to avoid all that falls unpleasantly on the eye, and weaves instead, a magic lantern land that embraces the wilderness of the cruel ocean, and presents, with a few hard edges, a young man’s early childhood in pastel rainbows. “Pi” is not for the cynic.
Pi’s father, Santosh (Adil Hussain) runs a stunning zoo in Pondicherry, India, again, a kind of Disney World where elephants wander about, almost crushing the occasional exotic lizards that prowl the grounds.
Pink flamingos wade majestically through cerulean blue pools, and a fearsome and gorgeous Bengal tiger prowls in an open cage.
Life takes a twist when Papa, coming upon economic stress sells the zoo and decides to ride the waves to deliver the animals to the new owners in America. It comes at a bad time for Pi, who has fallen in love with Andai, (Shravanthi Sainath) a stunning dance student.
But Papa is determined that the family can find happiness in the new land.
He puts together a Noah’s ark collection of his animals, that he’s sold to collectors, and sets out to deliver them on a perilous journey aboard a leaky Japanese freighter.
The ship runs into a nightmarish storm, one of the scariest you’ll ever see, guaranteed to rattle the popcorn and Coke in your belly, and sinks with all hands aboard, crew and Pi’s family.
Pi is saved when he falls into a lifeboat with a mad hyena, a zebra, an orangutag, and, hidden under a canvas, the tiger the family amusingly named Richard Parker, after a former guest.
Now, for the rest of the movie, we’re lost on an endless sea where Claudio Miranda, Lee’s cinematographer, works his computerized magic. Young Pi is faced with one life-threatening event after another. The jackal kills the zebra, the orangutan floats away, leaving the Bengal tiger and Pi to share 24 feet of leaky boat.
As a child, Pi’s pragmatic father had taught him that no matter how cute the tiger appears to be, he is an animal, and that Pi will always be something to eat. Things will change a bit, as it often does with unlikely shipmates, but thankfully, this is not a boy-and-his-dog story, and the relationship never becomes a Timmy and Lassie s’mores treat.
Despite a few treacly moments, well, quite a few actually, “Life of Pi” is an astonishing, visually stunning adventure of fabulous sights and wonderful acting. Be prepared, however, to want to get out of that lifeboat after an hour of tribulations that would have shaken Ahab and the faith of Noah. Even with sunsets, the beauty of Mychael Danna’s lovely score, incredibly starry nights and Spielbergian moons, the journey of one with raw nature grows tedious at several points.
“Life of Pi” begins and ends with an interview of the adult Pi by a journalist (Rafe Spall) that ties the story together. “Pi,” a huge best seller in print, is a boy’s spiritual journey into manhood and a diary of survival against incredible odds. It has moments that will suck the breath out of your lungs, and one or two others that come close to breaking your heart. For some reason, the great Gerard Depardieu makes a brief appearance as a surly freighter cook. No animals are harmed, and thankfully, there is no room in the small craft for a surprise cameo by Julia Roberts.
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.