Piscine Molitor Patel has a tiger by the tail. The zookeeper's son has just survived the sinking of a freighter containing his family's menagerie when another castaway struggles aboard the lifeboat. It's a full-grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
Can they follow the currents across the Pacific to land? Can 16-year-old Pi find the courage, intelligence and cunning to survive until they do? "Life of Pi," the 2001 bestseller by Yann Martel, made this saga of loss, struggle, faith and self-discovery into a publishing phenomenon, but its wayward plot, grand themes and claustrophobic scope seemed to doom any efforts to put it onscreen.
Now it has been done, triumphantly. Ang Lee's thrillingly audacious film transforms this inconceivable premise into visual poetry, high adventure and sheer enchantment. With digital effects of unsurpassed brilliance, it compels us to believe that the tiger is a living, breathing beast. The ocean scenes, sometimes computer-created, sometimes shot on an immense wave tank, merge seamlessly. The beautifully composed 3-D cinematography by Claudio Miranda ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") draws us into Pi's world as if by magnetic force.
Yet the production is never about film magic for its own sake. Each scene advances the story and deepens Pi's character, building toward a climax of intellectual and spiritual elation.
Lee is one of our greatest humanist filmmakers, and this is the film he was born to make. The mystical/theatrical exuberance of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the deep personal drama of "The Ice Storm" and the special-effects focus of "Hulk" were the ideal proving grounds for "Pi," which must succeed on all three levels if it is to work at all. Lee directs with breathless ingenuity, guiding his star, first-time actor Suraj Sharma, to a performance of unaffected authenticity and charm. The superb Irrfan Khan ("Slumdog Millionaire") carries much of the film as the adult Pi. As he tells the fantastic tale to a nameless writer (Rafe Spall), he is utterly, properly, matter-of-fact. If he had narrated with a twinkle in his eye, this modern fairy tale would have drifted into whimsy.
The film was shot chronologically, so Sharma could shed weight throughout Pi's ordeal. In the latter scenes where hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, lunacy and despair fill Pi's head with surreal visions, Sharma looks genuinely ecstatic. Anyone who shares his journey will be equally captivated.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186 Twitter: @colincovert