Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) was raised Hindu before converting to Catholicism and Islam all on his own. The spiritually-promiscuous, 16 year-old's parents reacted differently to the changes in the boy's unorthodox behavior which included going to church and praying facing east five times a day.
His frustrated father (Adil Hussain) warned, "You cannot follow three religions at the same time," while his more tolerant mother (Tabu) conceded that "Science cannot teach what is in here," touching her heart. Both shrug it off as probably just a passing phase, since they're busy planning the big move of the family household and zoo from India to Canada.
Then, tragedy strikes en route, when their cargo ship capsizes and sinks in the middle of the Pacific, leaving sole human survivor Pi in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Will the precocious believer remain true to his lofty ideals while having to play the faith-testing hand he's suddenly been dealt?
That's the pressing question posed in Life of Pi, a visually-captivating tale of spirituality and survival. Directed by Oscar-winner Ang Lee (for Brokeback Mountain), the movie was shot against a series of exquisite seascapes that look like glorious, hand-painted, pastel panoramas.
From the point of the shipwreck forward the picture is basically a one-man show, ala Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000). But instead of talking to a soccer ball, the protagonist here has to figure out how to coexist peacefully in very close quarters with a tiger who'd probably prefer to make him its next meal.
The burden of carrying the film falls on the shoulders of first-time actor Suraj Sharma, who does a magnificent job of conveying the existential angst of the beleaguered, ever-exasperated title character. But given the oceanic endurance theme, the picture still feels more like the Hitchcock classic, Lifeboat (1944), than Cast Away.
As for finding an audience, this remarkably richly-textured adaptation will undoubtedly be a hit with fans of the Yann Martel best-seller upon which it's based, as well as with audience members of any age just looking for an entertaining movie. It might be more important to note that during an opening sequence of this flashback flick, the audience is essentially told that what is about to unfold is a story that will make you believe in God.
For all its religious pretensions, however, the thrust of the production revolves less around any overt attempt to convert disbelievers than around Ang Lee's brilliant use of the screen as a cinematic canvas to narrate a compelling yarn for the ages. A critic and crowd-pleaser impossible to forget come Academy Award season.
Crouching tiger, hidden Siegfried! (sans Roy)
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes and scary action sequences
In English, French and Japanese with subtitles
Running time: 127 minutes
Distributor: 20th Century Fox