If you know nothing else of "Life of Pi," you likely saw the book's cover a decade ago, when Yann Martel's novel was selling in bales and winning international fiction awards: a boy plus a Bengal tiger on a small boat in the big ocean. With only that in mind you can ascertain that filming this religious survival tale would be a true feat — one finally completed 11 years after the book's debut.
For fans of the novel, the wait has paid off. After sifting through a list of directors (among the discarded, blessedly: M. Night Shyamalan) and sorting out such minor details as how to feasibly shoot the middle of the Pacific Ocean (hint: first flood an airplane hangar in Taiwan), the cinematic "Life of Pi" stays faithful to the novel nearly in letter and assuredly in spirit. At turns savage, plucky and contemplative, this 12th film by Ang Lee is a big-budget 3D art epic without a single bankable American star that will easily recoup its $120 million budget and will challenge formidably come awards season. And significantly, especially for the director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," this movie gives great tiger.
Pi is Piscine Molitor Patel, played at various ages but chiefly as a reflective adult by Irrfan Khan ("The Amazing Spider-Man") and as a castaway teen-ager by Suraj Sharma, making his debut. The adult Pi has welcomed a writer (Rafe Spall) to his home in Montreal to tell him his story. Born in India to a father who runs a zoo, Pi learns early of his Hindu roots but expands to become a practicing Christian and Muslim, reasoning that faith is a realm large enough to hold many gods. With the zoo on shaky finances, Pi, his parents and his brother migrate to Canada on a freighter carrying animals they aim to sell. High seas strike in the east Pacific. The ship is lost. Pi lands in a lifeboat. When the storm clears, he is sharing a 30-person aluminum boat with an injured zebra, a kindly orangutan, a vicious hyena — and Richard Parker, the zoo's star tiger and, soon, only other survivor.
The trip thereafter is nasty, brutish and long. Pi, a resourceful boy of abiding faith, finds ways to keep a distance from Richard Parker as they bob interminably, starving, parched, forlorn, across the vastness. The filmmakers surely had a choice: live tiger, live ocean, but not both. They went with live tiger (mostly) and a dreamy aesthetic that suits their caged sea. The cinematographer Claudio Miranda ("Fight Club," which shares a key plot synchronicity) and Lee have assembled a panoply of shots that stand among the great achievements in filming water, particularly beneath the surface and in the sinking of the freighter, a triumphant sequence. At turns, too, the religious themes and the ceaseless time in open ocean lend themselves to hallucinogenic discursions that vibrate with color and energy and depth that display, if not pioneer, the full power of 3D effects. At times, in quite a pleasant way, you will believe yourself drugged.
The weaknesses of "Life of Pi" owe largely to the source material. By the end the story's promise to make a listener believe in God rings overwrought, strained. The novel and the movie both feel seductively plausible until the realism gets a bit too magical in the final third; the script overexplains an elegant twist. But as long as you can swallow the detachable religiosity, you'll stumble out of "Life of Pi" blinking, gathering your thoughts and realizing that you've just spent two hours deep down, in an enchanting and dangerous place, blissfully submerged.