LITTLE ROCK — Taiwanese director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) poses intriguing philosophical questions while also providing some of the finest eye candy in recent memory. It’s fitting that The Life of Pi is hitting theaters around Thanksgiving because it offers viewers plenty to feast on.
The story begins in India but winds up spanning the globe and several years. Most of it concerns a Montreal college professor named Pi Patel (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan). Pi wasn’t born with his distinctive first name, and his path from childhood till now has led him into bizarre situations that sound a little too spectacular and unexpected to be true.
Yes, he really has named himself after the nonrepeating, nonrational Greek number that is used to calculate the dimensions of circles. It fits him better than his given name, which reminds his classmates of a synonym for bodily functions. It also explains why his life is full of such odd and occasionally fantastic turns.
Because of all the religions that have influenced the subcontinent over the centuries, Pi often weaves his Hinduism with Catholicism and Islam. Despite all of his spiritual wanderings, Pi promises a struggling writer (Rafe Spall) that he can prove that God exists. It’s a tall order, but Pi’s tales are so jaw dropping that it’s hardly an idle boast.
When Europeans left India in the late 1940s, Pi’s family owned a zoo, where one of the creatures is a magnificent tiger inadvertently named Richard Parker, after the hunter who captured him. As a teen, Pi (Suraj Sharma) becomes enamored of Richard Parker,even though the beast probably thinks of him the same way he’d think of a goat left in his cage: a meal.
Expectedly, this fascination leads Pi into trouble, but it also becomes a sort of salvation for him. When he and his family have to leave India for Canada, he and Richard Parker form an uneasy bond.
Revealing a lot about the plot ruins some of the surprises that Lee, screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) and novelist Yann Martel have in store. Throughout the film, Lee plays with perspective and comes up with 3-D images that do more than simply fly at the viewer.
With The Life of Pi, 3-D is not a gimmick or an excuse to raise ticket prices. Lee considers it an essential part of the storytelling process. Viewers have to work with Pi to make out what new challenge lies ahead.
Martel’s imagination has apparently gone into overdrive, but there also seems to be a point to all the fantasy. The Life of Pi explores the challenges of forming friendships and seems to be a warning about complacency. Getting comfortable appears to be just as dangerous as ignoring fear. Either can result in physical or spiritual death.
It’s tempting to think that some of Martel’s ideas worked better in print. Lee’s pacing drags a bit between the second and third acts as if he and Magee were trying to figure out how to make a potentially static situation seem more dynamic. Just when things start to settle into a physically beautiful monotony, The Life of Pi rights itself.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Lee, despite exceeding his quota of eye candy, remembers how to get the most out of his performers. Young Sharma effortlessly carries the film. While Khan is more than able as a narrator, it’s really Sharma’s film.
The Life of Pi might be a little too quirky for its own good, but its relentless drive to show us something we haven’t seen before is consistently rewarding.
The Life of Pi 88
Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Shravanthi Sainath, Gerard Depardieu
PG, for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril