Is there a God? Director Ang Lee tackles the biggest of all questions in this adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling novel about an Indian boy cast adrift on a lifeboat for 227 days. But this isn't a probing dissection of man's (or boy's) need to believe in a higher power, but a cute campfire tale drawn out over an epic runtime. It looks great, though, and that helps pass the time.
Lee also benefits from the casting of teenage newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi, a charismatic figure with a curious mind who rebels against his secular father (Adil Hussein) by practising all of the mainstream religions, all at the same time. Dad is a zoo owner who teaches Pi that he must live by his own wits rather than pray for guidance, urging him to watch as he offers a live goat to a hungry Bengal tiger.
Lee takes the story into fantastical realms beginning with a haunting image of Pi floating in the deep, watching the vessel go down, sparkling like the infinite universe above him. Pi makes it aboard a lifeboat, joined by a zebra, an orang-utan, a marauding hyena and the tiger, named after its hunter Richard Parker.
Nature quickly takes its course, leaving Pi and Parker staring each other down, and the frightened boy responds by throwing himself overboard. But he manages to fashion a small raft and tows himself along, only venturing onto the boat for emergency supplies.
Lee handles the weeks-long showdown with skill, moving between peril and wry comedy whenever Pi dares to set foot on the boat, trying to prove his mastery. The state-of-the-art animation that allows these two to dance around each other is impressive too, and even gives life to the eyes of the CG critter. In 3D, the seascape feels endless and a scene of flying fish is breathtaking.
But, there isn't much that lies beneath the surface. Simply, this is a coming-of-age story with a slightly more ferocious bite than the usual Disney tales of friendship between the species. As an adult, Pi (Irrfan Khan) relates his amazing story to a writer (Rafe Spall) who seeks a deeper meaning to the journey, but there are only platitudes on offer and a masterclass in misdirection. Watching this won't save your soul, but only remind you that life, like a magic trick, is a passing amusement.