Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi’’ is a wonder of contradictions. It’s a movie about the magnificence and danger of the natural world in which most of that “nature’’ has been created inside a computer. It’s a globe-spanning, visually rhapsodic epic about a mere two characters, one human and one not. It’s a 3-D extravaganza that mostly takes place inside a 20-foot boat. The film really shouldn’t work at all. The last time a talented director tackled an “unfilmable’’ novel, we got Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones’’ — as complete a train wreck as can be imagined.
But “Life of Pi’’ works, or at least the part that matters does — the long central section in which the young castaway, Pi (played with earnest presence by newcomer Suraj Sharma), drifts across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger, whose name, as a result of bureaucratic serendipity, is Richard Parker. He is not a cuddly tiger, and for much of the story, he is very, very hungry. The film’s about nothing less than man’s smallness — and resilience — in the face of the animal appetites of existence.
(A side note, and best to get it out of the way at the start: As the many readers of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller know, a zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan are also initially on the lifeboat after the ship — carrying Pi’s family and the contents of their Pondicherry, India, zoo to a new life in Canada — goes down in a raging storm. Those other animals don’t last long. While the details aren’t as horrific as they are on the page, they’re still grimly realistic enough to have caused cries of real distress in the younger members of the screening I attended while making a mockery of the MPAA’s blunderbuss approach to movie ratings. Just so you know: A PG does not automatically mean a family film. I repeat: This is not a “family film’’ as the commercial movie industry understands the term. Older and more thoughtful kids will have their nerves tested and their sensibilities expanded — as will their parents — but you should seriously consider leaving the under-10s at home. Here endeth the lecture.)
As in the book, this fantastic tale of survival is framed by the older Pi (the fine actor Irrfan Khan, his bearing more modestly weary than usual) narrating the story to a young British writer (Rafe Spall) in his Montreal living room. The setting is warm and mundane, intentionally ordinary, and it highlights the fable-like nature of Pi’s journey. Boy, tiger, boat, sea: It could be a passage out of Homer, a chapter in the “Arabian Nights,’’ a painting on a cave wall.
As a filmmaker, Lee seems to alternate between naturalism (“The Ice Storm,’’ “Brokeback Mountain’’) and rapturous otherworlds (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’’ even 2008’s “Lust, Caution’’). Really, he’s just a master at creating unique cinematic planets, and so it is here. Once we’re down to the hero and Richard Parker on the boat, “Life of Pi’’ settles into a series of dazzling visual variations — on ocean and aloneness, reason and wildness, mind and sinew — using all the artifice that highly-paid digital craftsmanship can muster. There are sequences to astonish: a sideways storm of flying fish, a whale heaving up from a phosphorescent midnight sea, a titanic second gale. Lee uses 3-D intelligently and inventively, not so much to convey the vastness of the distant horizons as to dramatize the tight and ever-shifting playing field of the lifeboat. By the time the story beaches us temporarily on an island with eerie secrets, it’s as though we’ve sailed right off the map.
Here be monsters, in other words. The moral of “Life of Pi,’’ though — and it’s as fuzzily articulated on the screen as in Martel’s novel — is that the monsters of our waking world can be infinitely worse. Toward the end of the movie, Pi tells the young writer an alternate version of what may have unfolded on the lifeboat — this one delivered by the character directly to the camera, without the fancy pixels — and we’re invited to ask ourselves which version we prefer. Not “believe,’’ but “prefer,’’ and the distinction is critical. The book has strained ideas about spirituality, with the young Pi dialing through the world’s major religions in search of meaning and a promise that his story has the power to make the young writer “believe in God.’’
Perhaps. Martel’s message (I’m guessing here) is that divine mercy can be found in the saving limitlessness of our imaginations, but that seems an unexpectedly small prize to fall out of the Cracker Jack box of this story. Reducing “Life of Pi’’ to a homily does it a disservice. Lee gives the framing story short shrift and concentrates on visualizing the inner tale with as much detail and power as possible. Yes, Richard Parker is a creature of computer animation (except for a handful of shots), but that lushness of detail, every black and orange hair ruffling in the digital ocean breeze, heightens the film’s sense of hypernatural clarity. If Martel puts his faith in human imagination, Lee trusts in the machines that allow us to share one person’s visions with a larger audience out there in the dark. “Life of Pi,’’ even more so on the screen, is a dream to help us keep the nightmares at bay.