An Indian boy and a Bengal tiger: a tale familiar to children a century ago from Rudyard Kipling's story of Mowgli and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. Call the boy Pi and the tiger Richard Parker, trap them on a small lifeboat in turbulent Pacific waters and set up a boy-vs.-beast battle for territory and survival, and you have the essence of Yann Martel's best-selling Life of Pi, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002. It's a ripping yarn, full of storm and fang and a spectral awe. But it poses unusual challenges to the director of a live-action movie.
Ang Lee has often bucked long odds in his films. The Taiwan-born American director mastered the nuances of English manners at the turn of the 19th century in Sense and Sensibility, set martial artists to dancing on treetops in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and sold mainstream audiences on the love story of two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. Here, Lee sets out to astound the viewer with 3-D. Life of Pi builds on the innovations in James Cameron's Avatar and the advances in motion-capture technology evident in Rise of the Planet of the Apes to create a tactile, spectacular world of wonder.
In David Magee's script, as in the novel, the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) relates his story to a skeptical Canadian writer (Rafe Spall): Pi is growing up happy in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry, where his father owns a small zoo. When the zoo must be sold, the father books his family and animals on a cargo ship headed for Canada. The storm that sinks the ship and disperses the creatures--another amazing sequence--launches the teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) on a cross-Pacific journey that casts him as Noah, Robinson Crusoe and Siegfried (without Roy) and threatens him with all manner of sea life plus an orangutan, a vicious hyena, about a million meerkats and, of course, the tiger. On the set, there was no tiger, just as in Rise of the Planet of the Apes there were no apes--just digital sorcery. Yet the creature is mean, majestic and palpable.
The surface of Lee's Pacific is a shimmering mirror; it reflects the sky so clearly that Pi seems to be both underwater and above the clouds. At times Lee follows the hallucinations of the malnourished boy, as in an underwater montage in which fish form a mosaic of his faraway girlfriend's face. Instead of the ecstatic soaring of the cross-species lovers in Avatar, this dream or nightmare is taking place in the remotest part of what we call earth. We see dire and divine events unfold through Pi's troubled spirit and, at times, through the eye of the tiger.
To compare Life of Pi with Avatar is not to suggest that Lee's movie will challenge the Cameron movie for all-time box-office supremacy. But Pi is a giant leap forward in expanding the resources of cinema. Magical realism was rarely so magical and never before so real. (In theaters now)