- - Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ang Lee manages to take an unfilmable story and suffuse it with astonishing energy in his adaptation of “Life of Pi.” Shot in 3-D and wildly colorful and luminous, the movie is among the most visually stunning of the year. Mr. Lee’s ambitious effort to bring to life Yann Martel’s allegorical novel alternately spellbinds and vexes. It’s gorgeous and enchanting.

But a story-within-a-story structure impedes the flow of the movie. Further, one of the central themes of the book — how we choose the stories we live by — is reduced to a minor coda in the film version.

The movie follows the story of Pi Patel. Drawn to religion, he adopts the tenets of his family’s Hinduism along with Catholic and Muslim faiths. He practices all three into his adulthood, driven by a powerful sense of the divine, and a mystical sense that any true religion cannot negate any other. This paradox is played out allegorically in the central event of the story — a shipwreck that leads to a 227-day ordeal in which Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a fully grown tiger named Richard Parker.

These stories of the young Pi are told by his older self. The grown-up Pi (Irrfan Khan) relates the tale to a writer (Rafe Spall). The writer’s novel is foundering, and he’s come to Pi in search of inspiration. While Pi’s tale is certainly inspiring, the writer seems somehow unworthy of it.

For those who haven’t read the book, it probably makes sense to fill in a few blanks. Born Piscine Molitor in the French colonial town of Pondicherry and named by his eccentric father for a Parisian swimming pool, Pi is taunted mercilessly by his classmates, who have seized on the unfortunate homonym produced by “Piscine.” To reinvent himself, he memorizes the number pi to several hundred decimal places, and scratches it out on chalkboards to the delight of his classmates.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma play the titular character in “Life of Pi,” a ... more >

Pi’s unusual childhood extends to his home life. His father runs a local zoo, and among the boy’s formative experiences is an attempt to befriend a tiger. This leads to an enduring and prophetic lesson from his father, in which Pi learns how the tiger has no wish for friendship — it can only remain true to its nature.

Threatened with penury, Pi’s family decides to emigrate to Canada, bringing the zoo animals on the sea voyage. Their ship sinks in a storm, and Pi is the lone human survivor, along with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the tiger. It doesn’t take long for the rule of survival of the fittest to sort itself out, leaving Pi to drift alone with the tiger.

It’s a remarkable journey. The teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma in his debut role) negotiates an uneasy truce with the tiger. As Pi adapts to the situation, he begins to see that his own fortunes are bound up with the tiger’s survival. On a metaphorical level, the tiger is a part of him, although in reality it seems like it would like nothing better than to eat him. The ocean world they occupy is both luminous and terrifying. Phosphorescent seas teem with jellyfish. Flying fish skitter in impossibly large schools on the ocean surface. Whales loll and drift underneath the lifeboat.

The images are all achieved with the help of digital effects, but they pulsate with life. It’s one of the most fully realized depictions of magical realism ever brought to the screen. At the same time, the big ideas of faith and paradox that are written into the script ought to have been left to emerge naturally from the story.

★★★

TITLE: “Life of Pi”

CREDITS: Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by David Magee, from the novel by Yann Martel

RATED: PG, for a few scenes of sudden violence that would alarm and frighten small children

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS