‘Life of Pi’ Review: Ang Lee Takes a Leap of Faith – and Soars

Life of Pi” is bravura filmmaking that combines the latest technological wizardry with heartfelt storytelling

(This review first appeared on Sept. 28, to coinide with the opening night of the New York Film Festival)

Director Ang Lee returns to top form with “Life of Pi,” a moving, 3-D saga about a youth and a tiger who survive warily together for months in a lifeboat after a shipwreck.

Wider in scope and reach than his last film, 2009’s “Taking Woodstock,” “Life of Pi” is bravura filmmaking that combines the latest technological wizardry with heartfelt storytelling.

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The movie has its world premiere Friday night as the opener at the New York Film Festival in Manhattan.

“Life of Pi” is based on author Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel of the same name, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize. Its hero is Piscine Molitor Patel (Suraj Sharma), a 17-year old Indian lad whose nickname is Pi. (The character is also played, as a boy, by Ayush Tandon and, as an adult, by Irrfan Khan.)

Pi’s father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, India, but eventually decides the family will move to Canada, along with many of the animals. When the freighter they’re all traveling on sinks, only Pi survives. He finds himself in a lifeboat along with Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger whose ferocious nature belies his civilized-sounding name.

Like "Castaway," in which Tom Hanks’ character survived with only a volleyball for company, Pi must rely on his own resources and ingenuity if he’s going to make it. ("Pi" is a far better and more involving film than "Castaway," which succeeded mostly on Hanks’ charm and likability.) Along the way, the teen and the tiger come to a sort of understanding, though how much of what Pi sees in Richard Parker’s eyes is actually there and how much is a reflection of what our hero wants to see remains an open question.

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“Life of Pi” is about faith. More specifically, it’s about taking a leap of faith, whether it’s in the belief in God (it is established early on that Pi has liberally sampled Hinduism, Christianity and Islam) or the belief in the power of a story. Both can take you places you never expected to go, allow you to perform feats unimaginable, and keep hope alive in the face of overwhelming and daunting circumstances.

Lee has made a film that’s marvelously simple and yet simultaneously complex. On one level, this is a magical tale of survival, with boy and tiger facing off, at least initially, against each other as well as the elements. On a deeper level, it’s a thematically elegant meditation on the role that faith plays in our lives and actions.

It’s also a visual wonder. Shot in 3-D and loaded with CGI effects (Lee wasn’t about to put his youthful star in a boat with an actual tiger intent on pouncing), it takes full advantage of both technologies, creating a watery world that is alternately gorgeous in its serene beauty and threatening in its power.

In many ways, “Pi” is like the iridescent hummingbird that, thanks to 3-D, flies out in front of the audience early in the movie, its wings beating rapidly. It seems impossible that either this delicate, beautiful creature or the movie, existing as it does on our belief in its improbable story, can stay aloft and moving forward — and yet they do.