Life of Pi offers two stories — one we are shown, and one we are told. The one we see is an occasionally enthralling, visually rich adventure at sea. The one we are told toward its conclusion is meant to make us rethink that adventure, to see it anew and discover meaning. But it’s a technique that can’t undo the impression made by what’s already been put up on the screen. And what’s been shown — while sometimes lovely to look at — isn’t enough to offset the feeling that the film hasn’t met its own lofty goal.
The film, based on Yann Martel’s 2001 well-regarded fantasy novel of the same name, opens its narrative in Pondicherry, India. In this former French colony, the young boy Piscine and his family run a small zoo. Lush, opulent images of the animals and their tranquil grounds set the film’s wondrous tone, which carries over into charming scenes that reveal how Piscine cleverly became known as Pi. The first half hour or so of the film focuses on his near boundless curiosity, one that manifests itself as a fascination with the religions of the world. In this respect, Pi takes more after his graceful, spiritual mother than his father, who is governed by reason, and who seems to regard his son’s earnest – to the point of devoted practice — explorations of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam with bemusement.
But his father’s lessons will soon serve Pi well. With their income diminishing, Pi and his family gather up their animals and head for Canada, taking passage on a Japanese freighter. During a violent storm, the ship sinks, with Pi and a few of the animals as the only survivors. Along with a hyena, zebra, and orangutan, Pi finds himself sharing a small lifeboat with the family’s Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.
This section is where director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) delivers one striking image after another — fluorescent fish, the starlit sky, and CGI renderings of animals that are astonishingly realistic. There’s much strange beauty on display here, but little that’s emotionally or intellectually transporting. When another version of the narrative is revealed by Pi, it’s an underwhelming experience. As lovely as it is to look at, and as well-acted as it is (Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi is wonderful) — Life of Pi is hampered by its own structure, one that keeps its themes at a remove.
Life of Pi may reward those who’ve read the book and carry with them its meaning into the cinema. But on its own, the movie — while touching on the power of story and the richness of the imagination — doesn’t reach the sense of transcendence that it’s striving to deliver.