There's a memorable dinner scene in Life of Pi that attempts to springboard the main theme forward but ironically paralyzes it. After the young Pi becomes the poster child of "coexist" and simultaneously embraces the religions of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam, his father confronts him during a meal. The serious businessman says, "Believing in everything is the same as believing in nothing." He tells his son to use reason and common sense, but in doing so, he's painted as the bad guy—as if the rest of the film will prove him wrong. But it turns out he's right after all: With a little thought and reason, it's easy to see the holes in Pi's thinking, and that this film, at its core, is nothing more than a big and beautiful spiritual mess.
Adapted from the Yann Martel's popular 2001 fantasy adventure novel by screenwriter David Magee, director Ang Lee's new film traces the journey of its title character from India, across the Pacific Ocean, to Canada. Told in flashbacks from the perspective of the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) to a struggling author (Rafe Spall) who hopes to be inspired and "believe in God," the story consists of three acts. The first, set in India, focuses on Pi's childhood living at a zoo run by his parents. Here, he develops a love for a girl at school, for the world's many animals, and for various religions, declaring that "faith is a house with many rooms." Lee captures the many creatures with stunning detail and a unique sense of humor, but this thread moves clumsily and feels stale and didactic rather than inspiring.
The second act makes up for it, though, when Pi's family decides to leave India for Canada. While crossing the Pacific, a fierce storm sinks their ship; Pi (Suraj Sharma in a breakout performance) and a few zoo animals are the only survivors. On a small boat in the middle of the ocean with a tiger, zebra, orangutan, and hyena, Pi finds himself on a quest to survive, in a battle of man vs. nature—or man against his maker, as he puts it—and an unforgettable adventure ensues. Filled with action, comedy, and moments of spiritual transcendence—like during a storm when Pi cries out to God, "What else do you want from me? I've surrendered everything!"—it's a riveting journey, and Lee the artist makes a visual spectacle of it.
Working with cinematographer Claudio Miranda and a talented visual effects team, Lee creates a masterful 3D experience better than even James Cameron's Avatar. Where Cameron's remarkable visual effects were flashy and gimmicky, Lee's are more substantive. He seems less concerned with making an impression and more concerned with using the medium to put together meaningful, symbolic images. This approach plays out most vividly out on the ocean, specifically a night scene where a bloom of jellyfish surrounds Pi and the tiger, dubbed "Richard Parker." The images form a visual ecstasy, lighting up the dark waters while also pointing to a greater light despite Pi's dire situation.