The opening credits of “Life of Pi” present color-drenched photos of a zoo in an audubon park in India. The animals scamper amid lush landscapes and pastel wall murals. It’s gorgeous.
And the movie only gets better after that.
Based on the novel by Yann Martel about a teenage boy who survives a shipwreck that kills his parents and brother, “Life of Pi” combines a fantastical action-adventure story with elements of religious philosophy, love of family and even a bit of romance.
Pi survives the shipwreck only to find himself trapped on a lifeboat with a ferocious tiger, an orangutan, a zebra and a hyena.
Think of a mashup of the things you like most about “Cast Away” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” and you might have a general idea of what you’re in for.
But there’s just no way to really describe “Life of Pi” without telling things that must be left to wash over you when you’re in the theater. (No, I haven’t read the book.) And that’s not gonna happen here.
What I can give you is the basic set-up.
Pi Patel is the second son of a man who runs a zoo in Pondicherry, India. Pi describes it as the French Riviera of India. He also describes in detail the mystery behind his unusual name.
Growing up, Pi becomes fascinated with Hinduism, the religion of his mother, and then Catholicism and Islam. But his father lost his faith during a traumatic childhood and describes religion as being dark. Pi and his brother are taught to believe in science, but he does not give up on God.
He’s also fascinated by the tiger in his father’s zoo, named Richard Parker.
When he’s a teen, Pi learns his father plans to sell the zoo animals and move his family to Canada for economic reasons. A Japanese freighter hauls not only the family but many of the zoo animals into the teeth of a ferocious storm.
As the movie begins, an adult Pi meets a writer who wants to hear his story. As he tells it to the writer, he tells it to us in a giant flashback, rarely and briefly interrupted by returns to the present.
But the bulk of the movie is in and around that lifeboat.
Director Ang Lee (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) uses a seamless combination of live-action shots and digital wonderment in depicting the storm, the ship sinking, the zoo animals, life at sea, fantastical landscapes and skies and water and stars. It’s a visual dazzler.
Also a wonder: the screenplay by David Magee (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day,” “Finding Neverland”) and terrific performances by Suraj Sharma as teenage Pi, Irrfan Khan (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Namesake”) as adult Pi and Rafe Spall as the writer. Gérard Depardieu has a cameo as a nasty ship’s cook.
“Life of Pi” is a story of belief, compassion, hope, life wisdom and heart. It’s on the short list of best-picture contenders among many Oscar watchers.
The tiger and shipwreck scenes are pretty intense, so it’s your call on whether your children are up for this PG-rated movie.
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