Life of Pi launches with a terrifically exciting shipwreck that includes zoo animals, some of them large and carnivorous, with the human passengers desperately trying to survive the sinking of their ship in the middle of the ocean. In the chaos, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) is separated from his family and ends up in a lifeboat by himself. Alone, that is, until a frenzied zebra jumps aboard, an orangutan floats over on a fruit net, and a ferocious Bengal tiger clambers in. The less fortunate animals are devoured by sharks. The zebra quickly becomes a fatality, too.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name and directed by Ang Lee with stunning visual imagination, Life of Pi is more than an unusual survival tale, though somewhat less than the gripping mediation on “letting go” that it sets out to be. Pi is telling his unbelievable tale to a writer (Rafe Spall) from the perspective of middle age, diminishing the story’s immediacy and slowing it down with contemplation. Since Pi narrates his saga while he’s living it, there’s no need for the rehash, especially since it doesn’t add to the metaphysical quality of Pi’s odyssey at sea: At times, he hallucinates from hunger.
Pi is a teenager in India when his father, a zookeeper, decides to relocate the family to Canada. “We will sail like Columbus!” he enthuses, to which Pi replies, “Columbus was looking for India.” They book passage on a huge freighter, with the animals sedated in crates, and then one night, the freighter mysteriously and rapidly sinks.
Pi’s greatest danger, and greatest advantage, is the tiger, named Richard Parker. The tiger is too strong to knock overboard, and to avoid becoming Richard Parker’s last meal, Pi pushes himself to the limits of resourcefulness to feed the big cat while he subsists on canned food and rain water. The CGI used for the tiger is marvelously convincing, especially when it’s scrambling around the storm-tossed boat or fixing Pi in its enigmatic stare. As weeks pass, the tiger’s unpredictable companionship keeps Pi from giving up.
The two castaways experience many marvels while lost at sea, including an airborne barrage of flying fish and an otherworldly cloud of phosphorescent jellyfish. Yet every time the narrative cuts from the lifeboat to the present, it loses momentum, and eventually, Pi’s voyage takes on the ambience of a distant memory, one that seems far removed from the audience compared to his treacherous adventure.