In Ang Lee’s sweetly fantastical and emotionally touching adaptation of the novel Life of Pi, there is the pressing matter of cinematic gadgetry put to intrinsically and artistic good use, for a change. Somehow, in this context, even the 3-D resistant among us (present company included) fall under the trance of technology and become willingly immersed in the you-are-there spatiality. In a similar way, the extravagant CGI involved here, requiring a village of digital workers that scroll by in the end credits, succeeds in bringing this story to life, from creating a scary and loveable tiger to painting a vivid visual marvel onscreen.
Still and all, toys aside, Life of Pi lures us most deeply into its introspection-lined adventure tale in refreshingly old-fashioned ways, with empathetic characters and a compelling storyline — however credulity-straining at times. Through the chronology-rubberizing device of a grown man recounting his remarkable childhood, the story moves back and forth in time to the bright and curious Indian boy Pi’s adventures with math and spirituality amid the animalia of his family’s zoo.
Blissfully contrary to the nature of most Hollywood films, early on, philosophical and religious ideas bubble up and establish a narrative foundation. “Faith is a house with many rooms,” says Pi, who moves past his Hindu roots to investigate Christianity and Islam. His pragmatic, real-worldly father suggests he look deeper into the power of reason. As his wilder life story unfolds, Pi ends up in a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific. There, an uncertain future and tests of patience and resourcefulness create a friction between faith and reason, veracity and allegory, God’s design and cool, cruel fates. It makes for one of the best lost-at-sea movies in the genre.
And just when we think Life of Pi is set to follow a straight and true course, things twist slightly on the narrative spine, and the storytelling aspect circles back on the very essence of the tale in question. In its own way, Life of Pi is one of a few recent films that are helping to keep mainstream cinema safe for poetic ambiguity, and in a sweet package suitable for the entire, 3-D eyewear–donning family.