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 ...

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