Spoiler Level: Low
"A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling," Thomas Hardy once wrote. "We story-tellers are all Ancient Mariners, and none of us is justified in stopping Wedding Guests (in other words, the hurrying public) unless he has something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experience of every average man and woman."
We can take issue, of course, with Hardy's aphorism: many storytellers before and since have spun magic from the ordinary experiences of average men and women. Still, at this point in what has been, to date, a fairly unremarkable year for movies, it is a joy to encounter a truly exceptional tale, one that can make us believe extraordinary things and demonstrate to us that we still have the capacity for wonder.
The source of this particular story is Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel Life of Pi, adapted here by screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland). The storyteller, however, is Ang Lee, the Academy Award-winning director of Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The advertisements for Life of Pi are selling it as "this year's Avatar," but that is a terrible injustice: yes, like James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster, Life of Pi boasts a stunning, richly colored CGI world rendered in the clearest, brightest 3D technology yet seen, but it's there that the comparisons end. Lee, unlike Cameron, is an artist, and in his hands all of this cutting-edge technology is in the service of a beautiful, moving film that restores our faith in stories even as it reminds us that any good story is, itself, an act of faith.
Like the Coleridge poem Hardy was referencing, Life of Pi is another fantastic seafaring adventure told to a largely silent guest: in this case, a writer (Rafe Spall) who goes in search of what he has been told is a story that will make him believe in God. He finds Piscene Molitor Patel (Irrfan Khan)—"Pi" for short—a kindly, quiet, middle-aged Indian man living in Canada, and hears Pi's unlikely story of survival at sea.
It is a story that begins in Pondicherry, India, where Pi's parents run a zoo in the local botanical gardens. Pi (played as a boy by Ayush Tandon) is raised as a fairly secularized Hindu, but he has a mind of seemingly infinite expandability: when he accidentally makes the acquaintance, in turn, of both Christianity and Islam, Pi sees no contradiction in accepting their gods into his personal pantheon along with the thousands of Hindu gods who are already there. "The gods were my superheroes growing up," he explains to the writer, and he sees no reason the heroes of all three religions shouldn't co-exist in his imagination just as the animals live side by side in the zoo.
This willingness to believe is at the heart of Life of Pi, which asks us to believe a great many equally unlikely things. When Pi is a teenager (now played by likable newcomer Suraj Sharma), his family decides to move from India to Canada, and so book passage on a Japanese freighter for themselves and several members of their menagerie. However, one night out on the Pacific, the ship goes down in a terrifying storm, leaving Pi the only human survivor in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an elderly orangutan, a hungry hyena, and Richard Parker. It is the latter gentleman who turns out to be the most problematic, least accommodating of the passengers: he is, after all, a fully grown Bengal tiger.
Though Lee takes his time getting us there, it is the struggle for survival aboard the lifeboat that occupies the bulk of Life of Pi, and delivers some of the most stunning and beautiful images ever captured on film. For all of the movies that have taken place on the ocean, we have never seen the sea so infinitely vast, so terrifyingly dangerous, or so full of miracles and wonders. From the crystal clear mirror images of the ocean at absolute calm, to the raging tempests of a storm, to the unspeakable beauty of a whale rising through phosphorescent algae, Lee creates magic and horror on the grandest scale, and immersing us in this vast, awe-inspiring expanse is by far the must purposeful use of 3D technology so far.
Still, Lee never loses sight of—or rushes through—the personal story at the center of this visual feast: the funny, touching, harrowing tale of a boy and a tiger struggling for survival. As the only human being on-screen for most of the picture, Sharma—in his first movie—more than rises to the challenge: though the movie necessarily loses most of the arcane knowledge of animal behavior and philosophical speculation that made up Pi's narration in the novel, Sharma's Pi—inventively pragmatic at times, endearingly impractical at others—holds our attention and earns our sympathy throughout.
He is well-matched, however, in his co-star Richard Parker. The tiger's name, we discover, is the result of a clerical error, and in an earlier scene we have seen Mr. Patel teaching Pi not to make the same anthropomorphizing mistake: he is anxious that his son understands that Richard Parker is not a person but a vicious beast, one who will never be Pi's friend. The movie, too, makes sure we never forget that the tiger is a tiger: Pi—who grapples with the question of whether animals have souls—does occasionally think of Richard Parker as person, but the filmmakers resist that temptation: even as the power dynamics on the small lifeboat shift back and forth, Richard Parker remains a wild animal, utterly dangerous and essentially unknowable. An undeniable masterpiece of physical design—to the extent that one is never completely sure which scenes employ a real animal and which use CGI—Richard Parker is also a masterpiece of character design, as dominant and fascinating a presence as any character in recent movie memory.
I will give nothing else of the plot away, though the question of whether Pi will survive his ordeal is never a mystery: we know from the opening scenes with the adult Pi that the boy in the story lives to tell his tale. On the one hand, these present-day sequences and the accompanying narration are arguably the weakest elements of the film—though Irrfan Khan is wonderful as the adult Pi, his face and manner housing both the wide-eyed boy we will meet in flashbacks and the wiser, sadder man that boy has become.
On the other hand, what seems at first glance to be a tired and tiresome framing device turns out, on reflection, to be absolutely essential. For one thing, it never lets us forget that what we are being told is a story, and this device completely justifies the gorgeous cinematography and special-effect enhancements of the central narrative: as Martin Scorsese did in last year's Hugo, Ang Lee employs modern technology not just for its own sake—though the breathtaking beauty of the film would be excuse enough—but to emphasize and heighten the fabulistic nature of what is presented. Lee is not just showing off, but filtering Pi's toweringly tall tale through the rich, vivid colors of imagination. Despite the practical concerns and genuinely brutal dangers to be found there, in entertaining Pi's story we are entering another, more magical world, as surely as Dorothy did when she stepped out of sepia into the Technicolor wonders of Oz.
More importantly—and also like Hugo—the film is a celebration of such stories, and a joyous rejection of insisting on the logical and the realistic. Without giving anything away, Life of Pi returns to its framing sequence in the end in a way that both questions and affirms everything we have heard, and asks us to question how we choose to view the universe. It is ultimately a question of faith, but faith as a matter of choice: do we choose to live in a dull, dark, indifferent universe, or do we choose to see gods and adventures and a world full of wonders?
Neither Pi nor Ang Lee provides us with any definitive answers: the choice, as ever, is ours. But Life of Pi is such a stunning, gorgeous masterpiece that—while we watch it, at least—we can't help but come down on the side of wonder.