Ignore the tiger for a moment. Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a very simple story with a grandiose backdrop. For much of the film, we're alone on a lifeboat, in the middle of the Pacific, with a boy and a Bengal. Rendered in sumptuous 3-D, the swoony special effects and chromatic opulence are at times overwhelming. Lee shot these scenes in a 1.7 million-gallon wave tank in Taiwan, and just as the tiger gets seasick, so too is the cinematography a bit queasy-making. To Lee's credit, the churning waves create a palpable, continual sense of motion as the vessel pitches.
But the story doesn't have such pull. Based on Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi is a tale of fantasy, adventure and spirituality. But where Martel's extended passages of metaphysical musings carry a consistent tone—meditative yet playful—the film surrenders the novel's more subtle messages for ham-handed schlock and slack-jawed awe. It's philosophy lite, pre-chewed and ready for easy consumption: The chaos of nature sows existential doubt, but faith will allow you to overcome. And unlike better feel-good films, which slowly lock their fangs around your heart, Life of Pi seems downright manipulative.
The film begins in French India, where young Pi's family owns a zoo. After some clunky exposition, the family decides to load its menagerie onto a ship, Noah's Ark style, and seek a brighter future in Canada. Gérard Depardieu has a campy cameo as the ship's racist chef, there's a storm of a magnitude not seen since Titanic, and Pi lands on a lifeboat with the aforementioned tiger for 257 days. Visually, this is where the film picks up. The scenes of India border on the psychedelic; the ocean swirls with phosphorescent plankton and jellyfish, a shimmering whale glides across the frame and the starry sky blurs with the glistening sea. Such sequences call to mind those Ravensburger jigsaw puzzles of underwater scenes with glowing moons and rainbow-hued fish. Less successfully, they reminded me of the neon Lisa Frank dolphin stickers I used to slap on my elementary-school notebooks. It's in these sequences that Claudio Miranda's cinematography draws excessive attention to itself, growing extravagant to the point of ridiculousness. As the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee is no stranger to intense visuals, but there was a nonchalance to that film that's absent in Life of Pi.
As Pi, newcomer Suraj Sharma deserves praise, and not just because he spends the majority of his scenes with a CGI tiger (which, it must be said, looks pretty realistic). The film's best moments feature Sharma bumbling through survival strategies as he constructs a separate raft for himself, safe from the tiger, or finding amusing ways to train the captive beast. Even as the story devolves into clumsy fable and the screenplay into ham-fisted browbeating, Sharma remains engaging and earnest. Nowhere is this clearer than in his greatest crisis of faith, during which he turns to the stormy skies and shouts, with believable sincerity, "God, I am your vessel!"
Structurally, Life of Pi is—like the one it features onscreen—a shipwreck. Tedious scenes of an adult Pi and a Canadian author (presumably Martel) frame the film's dramatic center, and they make the allegorical conceit all the schmaltzier. As an adult, Pi makes too obvious what his younger self keeps more discreet, and he's not abetted by aesthetic splendor. When at sea, Life of Pi's grand visuals pick up some of the story's slack. But back on land, it just runs aground.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: Life of Pi is rated PG. It opens Wednesday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Cornelius, Lake Twin, Oak Grove, Bridgeport, Evergreen Parkway, Movies On TV, Lloyd Mall, Pioneer Place, Sherwood, Tigard, Wilsonville, Sandy.