There's no denying Life if Pi is a visual wonder, a milestone in both 3D and digital creature creation. It immerses you in teen castaway Pi's tale of high seas survival - in the tale of how, having abandoned ship after the freighter carrying his family and a menagerie of animals from India to Canada goes down in a Pacific storm, he must share a lifeboat with a bengal tiger.
And no, they aren't about to bond. Just drift for 227 days, through storms, becalmed heat, and surreal encounters with other wildlife.
That's the central section of Yann Martel's 2001 novel, which was both acclaimed (it won the 2002 Man Booker prize) and popular (it sold seven million copies). But it's had a rocky voyage to the screen - directors M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet jumped ship along the way before Ang Lee set sail.
On paper, Lee would seem well qualified. He's proved a master of literary adaptations (Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain), and magical realism (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and growling digital creatures (Hulk).
That experience and Lee's trademark cool restraint are all brought to bear in a movie that suggests the word "unfilmable" has had its day. But as dazzling as Life of Pi is - its animation of its tiger is utterly convincing but for a land-based sequence later in the movie; the ship-sinking sequence is breathtaking - it's a film of occasional clunks in its storytelling.
Much of those can be heard in the framing scenes of an adult Pi telling his remarkable story, "which will make you believe in the existence of God", to a Martel-like writer. It did that in the book too, but it certainly breaks the spell on screen.
Meanwhile, the screenplay has excised much of the book's grim displays of nature's cruelty. A Darwinian battle aboard the lifeboat between four animals remains, but the story's darker heart is in little evidence.
Reduced too, are the novel's contemplations of comparative religion. The charming if plodding introductory scenes in India explain that young Pi, born a Hindu, has embraced Christianity and Islam too. Which might sound like extra insurance for the perilous voyage that follows, but the film is largely spiritually innocuous.
That said, there's something quite zen about how it looks once Pi and his feline fiend are out on the ocean.
Those who thought they would never swap their reading glasses for 3D goggles should really see this. If the Best Picture Oscar was just for best pictures, then this is the one to beat.
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan
Director: Ang Lee
Running time: 127 minutes
Verdict: An unfathomable wonder
- TimeOutBy Russell Baillie @RBaillieNZH Email Russell