Ang Lee attempts perhaps his most ambitious directorial feat to date with Life of Pi, a movie based on the bestselling and zealously adored 2001 novel by author Yann Martel. Even those who haven't read the book are probably vaguely aware of the story: a teenage boy from India named Pi (Suraj Sharma) loses his entire family in a shipwreck and somehow finds the will to survive nearly a year floating on the Pacific Ocean - with only a hungry Bengal tiger from his father's zoo to keep him company.
Employing beautifully rendered 3D technology, motion capture and CGI, every frame of the film is both an artistic and technical flourish. To say that the movie is visually arresting would be something of an understatement. The movie, in fact, is beyond visually arresting, sometimes even overwhelming with its saturated colours, its glittering and expansive vistas, its unabashed awe at the beauty of any and everything.
Show up for the visual acrobatics, but do stay for first-time actor Sharma. For someone who has never acted in a movie before, the 17-year-old delivers a moving performance that manages to stand out in a literal sea of bombastic spectacle. Also impressive is the miraculous performance by the digitally rendered Bengal tiger who dominates the screen with both a fearsome and almost human energy - here is where the technical accomplishments of the film shine most brilliantly.
Somewhat less impressive is the frame story that anchors the tale. An older, sage-like Pi (Irrfan Khan) waxes philosophic in the comparatively drably shot setting of Toronto, where he relays his unbelievable story to a Canadian novelist seeking inspiration and God. Their conversation seems superfluous, even a little tedious in contrast to actually watching the young Pi's harrowing tale play out.
Life of Pi is something of a beautiful ordeal, a film brimming with lush imagery as well as a sense of new-agey enlightenment that constantly swings between misty (and perhaps even hollow) to deeply resonant. It's a film that that aspires to the very loftiest of heights and, by the end, doesn't quite succeed. Still, beneath everything, the heart of the story - the boy, the boat, and the tiger - manages to outshine the movie's desperate desire to be great.