Floating away: Breathtaking visuals and moving lead performance buoy fantastical CGI adventure

Hollywood loves marketing films as “journeys of self-discovery”—a worthless umbrella phrase covering everything from “Forrest Gump” to “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” So it’s reasonable to approach the supposedly unfilmable “Life of Pi” with a little skepticism.

Especially when most of its runtime is spent solely on a teenage boy stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger.

Pi’s journey isn’t a smooth transition from book to screen, but frustrating narrative shortcomings are drowned in astounding visual entertainment. Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”) with his 3-D cameras dove into a massive wave tank, emerging with a powerful adaptation of Yann Martell’s 2001 novel. At its heart is the touching performance of newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi, and some of the most dazzlingly immersive CGI shots ever captured on film.

But for all of its breathtaking shots of majestic animals and shimmering waters, the adaptation falls into deep storytelling pitfalls.

“Pi” is structured like a narrative sandwich: the bread is a conventional coming-of-age story told by a middle-aged Pi, bogged down with clunky narration and altruistic themes of religious transcendence. The meaty middle is the agonizing, waterlogged fight for survival, bathed in eye-popping visual splendor. Then the film’s last act bungles what should be a heartbreaking payoff into an awkwardly executed anticlimax, squandering its epic momentum while preaching the tired religious epitaph that everything happens for a reason.

So like an Atkins diet, the carbs are the problem.

“Life of Pi” opens on a lush animal montage of the Indian zoo owned by Pi’s father (Adil Hussain,) like an Animal Planet special shot with the sharp lifelike quality of IMAX. Then the storybook structure jumps to modern-day Canada, where adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) recounts his extraordinary story to an inconsequential Canadian writer (Rafe Spall,) who serves no narrative purpose but to listen and nod.

After speeding through Pi’s Indian childhood—where he embraces Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam—Pi’s family decides to move to Canada, taking all of Noah’s ark with them. During a vicious storm, the Japanese freighter they’re riding capsizes and sinks. Pi (Sharma) miraculously escapes on a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena.

The hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, but it doesn’t last long before a tiger hiding under the tarp leaps out and tears it apart. Pi is left adrift in the ocean, alone with the gnarling Bengal tiger by the curious name of Richard Parker.

Sharma is magnetic as Pi despite acting against nothing but a green screen, his fiery will to survive exploding onscreen. Pi’s charming wit and ingenuity carry slower scenes like trying to train Richard Parker, but his passion erupts while yelling into a blinding storm or jabbing the tiger with a makeshift spear. During more whimsical scenes, like a whale leaping up from glowing ocean depths, Pi’s wide eyes pop with unabashed wonder.

Sadly, the suspenseful survival story flashes back to Canada, and the book’s revelatory ending falls flat through dull, philosophical conversations tangled in flashbacks. What should’ve been a raw, emotional triumph of the human spirit is instead a philosophical cop-out muddled in religious mumbo-jumbo.

But “Life of Pi” is an undeniable visual triumph, as Lee explores beautiful natural seascapes through a vivid CGI lens. Pi encounters schools of dolphins, glowing jellyfish, and a mossy, vine-tangled island teeming with meerkats. Not to mention the ferocious beast sharing the screen, a fully computer-generated creation with all the ferocity of a real 450-pound Bengal tiger.

The atmosphere is often surreal: small ripples cascade across the clear water mirroring bright red-gold clouds shrouded in sunset overhead, and the glimmering stars reflecting perfectly, creating a dreamlike harmony between the sea and night sky.

Like almost all adaptations, “Life of Pi” is hopelessly flawed because novel storytelling devices simply don’t translate seamlessly to film. But despite the clumsy narration and heavy-handed religious overtones, Ang Lee’s 3-D opus is a singularly stunning cinematic achievement.

The flaws of groundbreaking films are often outshined by aesthetic beauty. “Avatar” was a blatant rip-off of “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Matrix,” and “Pocahontas,” but it was gorgeous to look at. For all its faults, “Life of Pi” is a visual masterpiece, and that’s what it’ll be remembered for.


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