Ang Lee's Life of Pi is more than just a rip-roaring boy's adventure. Much more, unfortunately.
The movie is an adaptation of an award-winning 2001 novel by Canadian writer Yann Martel. The core of the story concerns a 17-year-old Indian boy named Pi (first-time actor Suraj Sharma, giving a precociously charismatic performance). Pi's father (Adil Hussain) runs a zoo in Pondicherry. When hard times come, he decides to relocate the family to Canada, along with all of the zoo's animals. When the freighter transporting them on this journey goes down in a fierce storm, Pi alone survives, and finds himself stuck on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a nasty hyena, and a very large Bengal tiger (whose zoo name, perhaps too eccentrically, is Richard Parker). The hyena makes short work of the zebra and the orangutan; the tiger makes even shorter work of the hyena, and then begins eyeing Pi, who fashions a raft out of the boat's life preservers in order to maintain a prudent distance. Many spectacular CGI events ensue.
By itself, this material might have made a great movie for kids. However, it's preceded by a good half hour's worth of backstory that seems likely to smother the interest of any average action-hungry nipper. There's also a framing device: The central story is being related by the grown-up Pi (Irfan Khan, of Slumdog Millionaire and The Amazing Spider-Man) to a visiting writer (Rafe Spall, of Prometheus). Khan exudes his usual quiet star power, but Spall has been directed to give one of the most tediously bland performances in recent recall. And the tale they're hashing over feels like the basis of a very different movie.
We see the young Pi—well-played by Gautam Belur at age five, and by Avush Tandon at 11—growing up in Pondicherry, a onetime French colonial outpost. There's a little city history, a bit about Pi's dislike of his given name, Piscine (a watery foreshadowing of things to come), and quite a bit more about his obsession with the nature of God, and the ranging of his religious interest beyond the Hindu faith to Catholicism and Islam. He meets a girl (pretty Shravanthi Sainath), and is just getting something going with her when dad announces the big family trip. Now, with younger viewers possibly on the nod, the central story kicks into gear.
Ang Lee, whose previous films include Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is a director who has never shown much interest in making the same sort of movie twice. Life of Pi is his first excursion into 3D filmmaking, and it's a work of meticulous digital artistry. The sequence in which the storm sinks the ship on which Pi and his family are traveling is a really frightening evocation of nature's deadly surging power. And some of the more placid scenes that follow—Pi's boat becalmed on a mirror-smooth sea, and lit up at night by an armada of bioluminescent jellyfish—have a radiant beauty. As Pi struggles to stay alive, there are also leaping porpoises, a squadron of flying fish (sushi is served!), and a gargantuan whale rocketing up from the depths.
Equally impressive is Lee's handling of three film elements well-known to be problematic: child actors (although Sharma is assured and engaging throughout), animals (although some are digital), and shooting on water (even if it is in a huge, custom-built wave tank). Cinematographer Claudio Miranda (Fight Club) negotiates the many long scenes within Pi's cramped lifeboat with extraordinary skill, and Lee's preference for long takes and inventive angles over frantic editing and blurry whip-camming is certainly refreshing. Unfortunately, it's also part of the reason that all of this doesn't add up to a more rousing picture.
Lee seems more inclined toward contemplating action than thrusting us into it—a little more frenzy actually would have helped. And the pace of the story—which eventually makes its way to an island heavily populated by cute knee-high meerkats, I'm afraid—is too measured to stir much real excitement. Well before Pi's boat reaches shore, we're already beginning to feel marooned.