It makes almost no logical sense to turn some books into movies. Yann Martel's Life of Pi is one of them. While this novel is a critical success, it's hardly a household name. Make it a mix of gritty survival drama and otherworldly visuals, as though somebody dipped Cast Away into a vat of Avatar. Give it to a filmmaker whose most notable journey into big-budget fantasy, Hulk, hardly endeared him to those looking to make wads of money. Cast not a single actor who more than a handful of Americans will recognize. Yep, time to start doing the blockbuster touchdown dance. Or not.
Despite all this, director Ang Lee has concocted something fairly remarkable, at least in the visuals department. He and screenwriter David Magee open with a framing narrative in which a struggling Canadian writer (Rafe Spall) listens to the strange story of a man named Pi (Irrfan Khan). Flashbacks take us to Pi's youth in India. The son of a zookeeper, he puzzles his family with his devotion not just to Hinduism, but also Christianity and Islam. When the family decide to move their entire menagerie to North America, their cargo ship sinks during a raging Pacific storm, claiming the lives of every human passenger except the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma). He's left on a lifeboat with a few surviving zoo animals, including a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
From the early scenes of Pi's life to his ordeal at sea, Lee serves up some of the most breathtaking images you'll see at the movies this year. Beneath the ocean, Pi watches in silence as the haunting silhouette of the sinking ship slips to the ocean floor. Pi's nighttime contemplation turns into a swirling mass of creatures and images coalescing into a vision of the universe itself. Even the use of 3D is uniquely intriguing, as Lee changes the aspect ratio of one shot so it seems that a soaring fish is bursting through the frame of the film.
And though Sharma plays opposite a computer-generated tiger, the film's survival story proves compelling, and at times funny and thrilling. Lee understands that his story is not intended to be a harrowing piece of psychological realism. He focuses on the interaction between Pi and Richard Parker, crafting a metaphor about a frightening natural world that must be understood, not tamed.
Pi's exploration of the nature of faith is likely to challenge audiences, and the answers the film offers may prove vexing. But Life of Pi does encourage us to embrace that which is beautiful. Lee makes the film work on this level, creating a story about defying reason, in a movie that itself defies reason.