With Life of Pi, Lee takes on a not-so-crouching tiger to bring audiences a wondrously enthralling adventure fable.
Shooting a film on water is notoriously risky, and most of Life of Pi (* * * ½ out of four; rated PG; opening Wednesday nationwide) takes on that hazard. Working with animals (even the CG variety) and children can also be rough going. Lee blithely faces these hurdles and still another: shooting the movie in three dimensions.
All these gambles pay off handsomely. Lee's exquisite adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 best seller is a visual feast that leaves an indelible impression. Vibrantly rendered 3-D adds to the film's otherworldly quality.
A teenage boy is stranded somewhere on the Pacific Ocean in a small lifeboat with a menacing tiger aboard. What could be more challenging - for director and innocent main character?
Lee is a master at epic filmmaking, as beautifully illustrated in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He is also brilliant at evoking emotional resonance, as he demonstrated in Brokeback Mountain.
Lee cast Suraj Sharma - who is making his film debut - in the lead role of teenage Pi Patel. Alone on the open sea for a good portion of the film, Sharma proves to be a natural talent.
Pi, short for Piscine, the French word for swimming pool, was named by a father who loved all things aquatic, though he never swam.
Pi is fascinated by world religions, and also the dangerous beauty of one of the animals in his family's Pondicherry zoo: a tiger oddly named Richard Parker.
When Pi's parents decide to move - along with their menagerie - from India to Canada, tragedy ensues. Their ship is caught in a powerful tempest featuring the most harrowing water-logged disaster scenes since Titanic.
Scenes in which Pi struggles to survive on a storm-tossed sea are thoroughly riveting, as are amazing underwater sequences in which the zoo animals struggle mightily. Pi somehow survives, along with Richard Parker.
During Pi's long oceanic voyage, the film is buoyantly riveting. It's a compelling personal odyssey of survival amid grandly spectacular vistas. A tentative bond between boy and hungry tiger seems oddly natural in this extreme, storm-lashed setting.
It is only in the story's expository framing device that the overall flow is marred. Interviews between an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) and a struggling writer (Rafe Spall) come off plodding in comparison to the sumptuous adventure on the high seas. These passages work better as a literary device than a cinematic one.
Otherwise, Lee takes the best from Martell's novel and blends religion and zoology (the adult Pi's dual college majors) in artful ways. Pi encounters a captivating array of sea creatures while shipwrecked: magnificent whales, glorious flying fish and iridescent underwater life. He also cries out to God for deliverance.
As mighty waves crash, and even when the sea is nearly becalmed, Life of Pi is a spectacular high-seas epic that employs technology brilliantly and underscores the power of a vividly told story.
(Copyright © 2012 USA TODAY)