Talk about crouching tigers! Ang Lee, director of a certain martial-arts adventure, pounces on Life of Pi, the mystical tale based on Yann Martel's novel of a wiry Bengal tiger and a wary adolescent adrift in a lifeboat.
The tiger is Richard Parker, so called due to a clerical error that scrambled the name of the cat and his captor. The youth is Piscine Patel, also called Pi, an Indian boy named after the French word for pool. The lifeboat is big enough for eight humans but not for its unexpected cargo. Namely, Richard Parker, a creature from the Patel family zoo, who springs out from under the boat's tarpaulin with a what's-for-supper? curl of mouth.
At least that's how the grown Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells it in the film's framing device, when a writer (Rafe Spall) comes to learn of his amazing tale of survival at sea. Lee's enthralling film is about the stories we tell to make peace with the incomprehensible.
And what a story it is, a 3-D epic with a biblical sense of awe and wonder, where flying fish appear just as Richard Parker and Pi, the beast and the boy with beast inside, dance the dance of eat-or-be-eaten. And where bioluminescent jellyfish in the phosphorescent sea resemble galaxies in the vast night sky.
Lee is one in a handful of filmmakers who uses 3-D to artistic effect, not to take the audience on a thrill ride but to make it see dimensions beneath the surfaces of things. Speaking of digital magic, I fully believed that Richard Parker was a real animal and not a product of computer-generated imagery.
While Lee's film would seem to be an aberration in a filmography that includes Sense and Sensibility, Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain, Pi fits into the oeuvre of this filmmaker whose movies frame the family as both cage and springboard, and whose protagonists often are displaced persons.
Pi experiences the most extreme displacement of all. By the time the young man (played at different ages by four actors, in adolescence by Suraj Sharma) dives off the deck of the compromised freighter on which his family and its zoo animals are bound for Canada, he has already left his homeland of French India. He isn't ready to lose his parents and brother, too.
How can Pi weather the rough seas, forage for food, and not be devoured by his predatory shipmate? The implication in this parable is because he is a believer. In his Pondicherry days we see him come to God through Hinduism. We see him fall in love with Jesus at a Catholic church. We see him, metaphorically speaking, get introduced to Allah by the prophet Muhammad.
A character in the film refers to Pi's story as one that will make you believe in God. This is not quite right. Pi's story makes you believe why Pi would believe in God, sacrificer of innocents, tester of souls, creator of rapturous beauty.
Much as I was moved by the film, I have one reservation and one warning. The framing device of the older Pi recounting his story to the author (which worked so well in Martel's novel) is intrusive and significantly detracts from the story. And while the film is rated PG, its themes of loss and loss of innocence are not for children under 12.