A stacked-deck theological inquiry filtered through a Titanic-by-way-of-Slumdog Millionaire narrative, Life of Pi manages occasional spiritual wonder through its 3-D visuals but otherwise sinks like a stone. It's no shock that Ang Lee brings to his high seas adventure graceful and refined aesthetics devoid of any unique signature or pressing emotion, as the director has long since proven himself to be a skillful big-studio craftsman without an imprimatur to call his own. Here, that anonymity results in slavish, proficient devotion to his source material, Yann Martel's 2001 novel.
The story concerns the religious upbringing of Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) in India, his unbelievable experiences surviving a shipwreck aboard a life raft also occupied by an enormous Bengal tiger, and his post-rescue efforts to convince Japanese officials that his tale is true — a three-part structure that's framed by the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan), recounting his tale to the nameless Writer (Rafe Spall). A struggling white American novelist who has been told that Pi's saga will convince him of God's existence, the Writer — who looks like he just came from a Banana Republic modeling shoot — is a colonial appropriator of Pi's story, which he plans to turn into his own novel. Lee, however, ignores such thorny sociopolitical dynamics, opting instead to couch this framework as merely further proof of the divine magic of storytelling.
That last message is, during the finale, spelled out with head-smacking literalness by the adult Pi, who, as embodied by Khan, delivers every line like it's more important than the last. Yet before it reaches that apex of obviousness, Life of Pi first concentrates on its protagonist's youthful search for the Almighty. That path takes him to his parents' Hinduism, then to Christ, and finally to Allah (he also tells the Writer that he teaches some Judaism, seemingly to assuage any suspicions of anti-Semitism) and finds that faith need not be confined to one strict dogma.
When his zoo operator father (Adil Hussain) decries this behavior as a sign of indecisiveness, the sentiment rings starkly true, but as Lee's film is first and foremost a pantheistic creature interested in championing a vague brand of devotion, Pi is never portrayed as anything less than a darling, admirable little holy man. That comes to a head when Pi attempts to feed dad's giant tiger — named, oh-so adorably, Richard Parker — and is scolded for not recognizing that beasts are wild and have no souls. Pi refuses to believe that even once the Canada-bound ocean liner that he and his family are on sinks, and Pi finds himself joined on a small rowboat with a wounded zebra, a kindly orangutan, a nasty hyena, and ferocious Parker.
Lee stages the freighter's demise with a thrilling immediacy, taking full advantage of 3-D, and culminates with a shot of an underwater Pi gazing at the vessel as it descends to the bottom, its lights twinkling like flickering eyes. The moment boasts a stunningly beautiful multidimensionality.
Such flair becomes more overt during Pi's time with Parker out in the vast blue nowhere, a middle section that Lee stages with intensity aided in part by animal CG that never feels artificial or corny. Flesh-and-blood Sharma's performance isn't quite as adept, though his evocation of Pi's fears of death and determination to endure is sturdy enough for the character's plight to feel emotionally genuine if not dramatically tense. Because the film's structure makes clear that Pi survives this ordeal, his contentious rapport with Richard Parker feels like a strained Jungle Book-ish metaphor. Lee's imagery props up this action, delighting with rhapsodic colors, overblown foreground/background contrasts, and luxurious computer-generated visions, including the appearance of a humpback whale leaping against a starry expanse that has the sort of glowing majesty fit for a dorm room's black-light-enhanced velvet wall tapestry.
Alas, though one can sometimes sink into Life of Pi on a sensory level, the story's relentless articulation of its thematic aims proves a buzzkill. The nadir comes in the homestretch, when Pi's story is met with disbelief by his rescuers, and, in order to satisfy their bureaucratic perspectives, he concocts a tamer version of events: He was trapped on the boat with a wounded sailor, a murderous cook, and his mother. The make-you-go-hmm point of this last passage, according to adult Pi, is that because neither account changes the basic facts (regardless, the ship sank, his family died, and he survived), the particulars are unimportant — and thus, like the Bible, one should always choose to believe in the "better story."
Because Lee doesn't dramatize Pi's human-counterpart report, however, it's tough for viewers to determine which is "better." Through its melodramatic, underlined-meaningful final conversations between Pi and the Writer, the film spoon-feeds rather than enlightens.