Life of Pi

Life of Pi may not make a compelling case for believing, but its computer graphics are transcendent
SHIPMATES: Young Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a dangerous companion in 'Life of Pi.'

Not content to be absolutely phantasmagorical, Life of Pi claims it will also make you believe in God. A little more modestly, the computer graphics represent a milestone of the technique, and although the film comes with a heavy wow-factor, it's not lobotomized like Avatar.

Pi (Irrfan Khan) is a demurely friendly professor in modern Montreal. Over lunch with an avid, even moist-eyed American (Rafe Spall), whose last novel was stillborn, Pi unfolds the tale of his singular voyage to the Newer World from his middle-class home in the French colony of Pondicherry—a Tintin-esque locale.

The narrator's strange name is a story in itself. The son of a man who believes only in logic, Pi becomes pious in all the religions, in passages that director Ang Lee envisions as a handsome pastiche of Satyajit Ray. Dad runs a zoo; the animals weave sleepily, on the verge of siesta, through the titles. When the money runs short, the family must sell the critters to overseas collectors.

The animal freighter sinks, and the young Pi (Suraj Sharma), the sole human survivor, is stranded in a 20-foot-lifeboat with a wounded zebra, an elderly orangutan and a ravenous hyena. Then, out of the waves, comes the zoo's tiger, Richard Parker (his strange name is also a story in itself).

When the fur stops flying, Pi and the tiger are the lone shipmates. Richard Parker has never seen a Disney movie; he has a vicious temper and refuses to be gentled. Being stuck in an open boat with a tiger is something like a vintage Laurel and Hardy joke, and the situation has its funny moments (such as an ultimate pissing competition).

Lee finesses the predicament, from its outlandish humor to its poignant side. Richard Parker leaps after a fish and then can't get back aboard, and Pi must decide whether or not to let his potential murderer drown. In one of the few editorialisms foisted on an otherwise glorious tiger, we see that the animators have allowed a touch of Puss-in-Boots' pity face, familiar from the Internet: huge eyes and folded ears as it hangs, soaking wet, on the side of the boat.

Worn down by weeks of certain doom, Pi puts his trust in providence. The seas are sometimes so millpond flat and mirror-clear that you could walk on water, or they boil with phosphorescence, making the boat appear to be floating through space in reflected stars. Pi sees a vision of his drowned mother composed of schools of fishes, full fathoms five below.

Why isn't this all unicorny? We do get a reverse angle on the story: a spiritual person's despair at the tiger dwelling inside of men. In a Bergman-like straight-to-the-camera speech, away from his tiger, we see how expertly Sharma holds our attention. Maybe he'll be the first star of Indian ancestry to be big in America.

The film didn't make me a believer—except maybe in the God of Stories. Life of Pi seems more excitingly pagan than anything else, though the godless might be touched with a wave of Hindu pity for the sorrowful carnival of the world—the cycle of eating and being eaten, redeemed maybe by the multitudinousness of life.

The movie certainly seeks to contain multitudes. In one moment, we take a 3-D ride into the Day-Glo insides of Krishna's mouth, and it's full of stars. A Stoic might applaud this film's symbols of Appetite controlled by Conscience. Surely, Life of Pi delivers vegetarian rhetoric of the highest quality.

The film also deploys some Deepak Chopra–style bromides such as the old wheeze "Science can tell us about out there but not what's in here ..." accompanied by a self-satisfied thump of the thumb against the breastbone. But whatever Life of Pi is trying to say about the Hindu/Buddhist Wheel of Suffering, it says much more interestingly than did Cloud Atlas.

One can take it straight as a hell of a rousing open-boat adventure. It's like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" with a splendid tiger in it, a beast all the more splendid for being nothing but a figment of pixels.

Life of Pi

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