“Life of Pi,” Yann Martel’s beautiful little book about a young man and the sea and a tiger, has transformed into a big, imposing and often lovely 3-D experience. If the results are less about poetry and wonder than the digital and cinematic engineering designed to evoke those things, with this story — so very, very unlikely to succeed in any other medium — “good” is achievement enough.
The guiding hand belongs to Ang Lee, a director of versatile tastes, catlike patience and a restrained sort of showmanship. Already much attention has been paid to the computer-generated Bengal tiger and its lifelike yet dimensionally expressive qualities. The cat, a deadly beauty, goes by the name Richard Parker, formerly a resident of the Pondicherry, India, zoo where young Piscine Militor Patel, self-nicknamed Pi, has grown up among all sorts of animals.
At age 17, the spiritually inclined Pi sets sail with his family on a Japanese freighter across the Pacific for Canada, accompanying a slew of zoo creatures being sold to North American zoos. Terrible weather. The cargo ship sinks. Many die — all, in fact, except Pi and the fearsome Richard Parker, along with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a few bugs. The young man clings to life in his uneasily shared 26-foot lifeboat. And the adventures and astonishments keep on coming.
For a while the story suggests a tightly confined interspecies version of “And Then There Were None.” Working from a script shrewdly adapted (though radically toned down in its protagonist’s religious quests) by David Magee, Lee proceeds through Martel’s tall tale with an eye toward making the worst of what happens (beast-on-beast violence and snacking, and more) a matter of suggestion or elision. At the same time, Lee makes effective “gotcha!” use of the 3-D format, saving the gotchas for two or three key alarming points in the story.
Some of the sights are splendidly realized, notably a flying-fish sequence that spells lifesaving sustenance for Pi and Richard Parker, as well as a genuinely accomplished use of digital effects technology. The ocean at night, in the blinding midday sun, a windless, glassy mirror one minute, a hellacious stormy nightmare the next: Working with his cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, Lee creates a visual palette disinterested in documentary realism. This film is after slightly overbright and unrealistic vibrancy, in addition to the biggest whale you’ve ever seen, and a mysterious island to rival anything in “Mysterious Island.” The tiger may not be a living, breathing tiger, but the digital creation thereof makes for the most persuasive purr and growl in a lifeboat since Tallulah Bankhead met Alfred Hitchcock.
I admire the film a great deal, which isn’t the same as falling for it hook, line and sinker. The young actor playing the teenage Pi, Suraj Sharma, is perfectly fine, but an hour or two after seeing “Life of Pi” his performance already was lost in the waves of the film’s other, more obviously formidable selling points. It would’ve been nearly impossible (and certainly, for the humans, extremely dangerous) to film “Life of Pi” without a surfeit of digital trickery.
But in order to figure out why I liked the film without loving it, I went back to one of my favorite human/animal adventure films, Carroll Ballard’s exquisite “The Black Stallion.” And there I was, lost all over again, in the island sequences between young Kelly Reno and the horse. Nothing in “Life of Pi” is dull, or sloppy, but the story’s breathing room — despite all that vastness and all those days and weeks on the water — is scarce indeed.
Lee brings serious craftsmanship and dramatic clarity to “Life of Pi,” along with a near-constant deployment of 21st-century digital wow! This is why the film works, and why audiences, I suspect, will devour it the way they devoured Martel’s prose, much as a starving hyena tears into an unfortunate zebra, to name one grisly yet discreet depiction in “Life of Pi” — discreet enough to retain a PG rating.