“Life of Pi” visually stunning and moving but tests patience

“Life of Pi,” the Yann Martel novel that suffered its share of rejections before being published in 2001 and becoming wildly successful, has made its inevitable move to film via director Ang Lee’s visually beautiful adaptation.

David Magee (“Finding Neverland”) wrote the screenplay, and no doubt the movie was going to be a daunting undertaking, with so much of the story centering around a teenage Indian boy and a Bengal tiger.

Some detractors have dismissed “Pi” as “Cast Away” with a Bengal tiger instead of a blood-stained volleyball, but that is oversimplification. “Cast Away” is the story of a man driven to survive so he can be reunited with his beloved wife. “Pi” is an exploration of faith, as Pi has nothing to return to should he get through his ordeal.

“Pi” is mostly a flashback, as the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), relates his story, a la Forrest Gump, to a writer (Rafe Spall). Pi talks about his childhood in India. One of two siblings, Pi is an intelligent boy who although a Hindu also embraces Christianity and Islam in an effort to be close to God, much to his father’s dismay, who insists Pi needs to chose one path to follow.

Pi’s father is a zookeeper, but political and financial concerns lead him to decide to take his family to Canada and sell the animals. This is bad for Pi, who has just begun a relationship with a young woman. The Patel family charters passage on a Japanese freighter to transport them and the zoo animals to Canada.

Disaster strikes, as the freighter, in a vicious storm, sinks. Pi is the lone human survivor, finding himself in a lifeboat with an injured zebra, an orangutan and a spotted hyena. Nature being uncompromising, the three animals soon are gone, and the sudden appearance of theĀ  Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, seals it as to who survives.

So, Pi and the tiger are boat-mates, and the center of the movie focuses on the boy and the animal establishing the parameters of their relationship. Pi’s faith is continually challenged but time and again events revive hopes of survival.

Even when they hit an island, which is a domain of thousands of meerkats, any hope of living out their days on this seeming oasis gets dashed. So it is back to sea.

Once they reach significant land on the shore of Mexico, emaciated but alive, Pi gets a reality check on the nature of nature, thinking he and Richard Parker established some sort of bond. But, hey, a Bengal tiger is not a domesticated cat.

Readers of the book know what happens after that, but those who are experiencing the “Live of Pi” first in the movie version will get the jolt of a twist — one which can spark outrage of anyone who is emotionally invested in the story and discovers there might be a challenge to what they have experienced.

“Life of Pi” has many touching moments, and lovers of animals will find some brutal scenes hard to take even through the animals on screen are computer generated. Also, the section of the movie wherein Pi and Richard Parker are drifting aimlessly at sea tends to drag and test patience.

Suraj Sharma in his feature debut offers a memorable performance as the teen Pi in what had to be a challenging role. Not only was it physically draining work, but his interaction with the tiger had to be like playing with an invisible friend, as the actual animal was not there, being added later in the technical/computer processes of the production.

Lee is a proven director, as he has shown in “Brokeback Mountain,” “Taking Woodstock” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” With “Pi” he has crafted a gorgeous movie, taking a story has been told before and giving it a stunning visual backdrop.

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