“‘Pi’ of the Tiger”

“Life of Pi”
Suraj Sharman, Irrfan Khan
Directed by Ang Lee

For a filmmaker whose name isn’t exactly synonymous with the words “groundbreaking visual effects,” Ang Lee might seem like a rather unlikely choice to direct “Life of Pi,” the $120 million adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling novel of the same name. And the fact that “Pi” also represents Lee’s first foray into the tricky world of 3D turns the film into something of a risk for its distributor 20th Century Fox.

But given the amazing results of some of Lee’s other odd fits – specifically, his martial arts masterpiece “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and the phenomenal cowboy love story “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), the latter of which earned him an Oscar for Best Director – it may very well be that Lee is at the top of his game when he’s working outside of his comfort zone (whatever that is, which is why he gets a free pass for his ambitious and under-appreciated take on 2003’s “Hulk”).

Perhaps motivated by the desire to prove himself after his last movie – the lightweight “Taking Woodstock” (2009) – turned out to be such a bummer, Lee scales new heights with “Life of Pi,” a profound, awe-inspiring and spellbinding coming-of-age adventure that will leave you breathless.

But Lee is first and foremost a storyteller, which is why his intimate character-driven dramas like “The Ice Storm” and the aforementioned “Brokeback Mountain” are seen as classics of modern cinema. “Life of Pi” instantly joins that fold, thanks not only to Lee’s seamless ability to deftly balance moments of poignancy, danger and sheer beauty, but also to the spiritual screenplay written by David Magee (“Neverland”) and the fantastic performances of Irrfan Khan (“The Namesake”) and newcomer Suraj Sharma.

Khan plays the older version of Piscine Militor Patel – otherwise known as Pi – who tells his incredible story of survival to a writer looking for inspiration. When he was 17-years-old, his family decided to sell their zoo and relocate from India to Canada. But during their journey, their ship sinks during a massive storm, killing everyone aboard – that is, all except Pi and a fearsome Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As if being cast away at sea for 227 days wasn’t bad enough, Pi must also fend for himself against his hungry lifeboat passenger – and that boat is getting smaller by the moment.

In addition to 2009’s “Avatar” and last year’s “Hugo,” “Life of Pi” features incredible 3D effects that sustain their effectiveness throughout the duration of its 2 hour and 5 minute running time. Even jaded moviegoers weaned on big budget spectacles will be blown away by the powerful impact of the technology on display here, especially when it comes to the impression made by a computer-generated tiger that looks all-too-real.

But Pi’s adventure would not be worth taking without the fully-committed performance of Suraj Sharma. Talk about an impressive acting debut, Sharma spends most of his time performing alongside a character that wasn’t even present during principal photography, and he pulls it off like a pro with decades of experience. As a result, his soulful turn fully enlivens the resulting impact of Richard Parker in much the same way Mark Hamill gave “life” to a puppet named Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

In an era where people are spending more time watching movies on DVD, on Demand, on their tablets or even (shudder!) on their iPhones, “Life of Pi” is a perfect example of a film that absolutely has to be seen on the big screen. And that it should come not from the innovating likes of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or James Cameron, but from Ang Lee? Well, here’s hoping that he keeps making movies that are outside of his comfort zone (again, whatever that is).

-Scott Mantz