"Life of Pi", Ang Lee's latest after a hiatus of three years, is hardly a movie that can be said to have been "made". Instead, it draws to mind phrases like "painstakingly crafted" and "stunningly staged". The care that went into this two-hour parable is clear from the onset. Set in the context of a conversation between a young writer (Rafe Spall) and an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan, most recently seen stateside in 2012's Spiderman reboot), who retells his incredible journey from India.
The story starts in an idyllic sepia postcard town in French India, where Pi spends the first part of his life, helping out with the family zoo. Deeply spiritual, young Pi (newcomer Suraj Sharma) has embraced pretty much every religion he's come across (sometimes to his parents' chagrin) - from Hiduism to Islam to Christianity. Times are changing, though, so Pi's family packs up the zoo and heads to America on a Japanese freight ship.
The ship is caught in a storm and, for whatever reason, sinks. All that remains is Pi, who manages to escape to a lifeboat and finds himself in the company of a dying zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and of course, Richard Parker, a large bengal tiger. As they struggle to survive the first few days on the boat, Pi's small menagerie shrinks until it is just him, Richard Parker, and an endless horizon.
Needless to say, the relationship between the boy and the tiger is complicated. While Pi finds some survival supplies, they aren't much help for the tiger who, yes, would like nothing more than to eat the boy. Pi, on the other hand, is terrified of Richard Parker, but his mortal enemy is also his only companion, so they find an uneasy peace. To survive, Pi must turn himself over to God to face salvation or mortality, one of which awaits at the end of his journey.
All of this plays out against gorgeously blue skies, reflected in the ocean, through which fish dart around and sharks sometimes circle. At night, the sea is an endless pool of stars, glowing from within with bioluminescence. At one point, they come across a crazy deserted island, rich with lush vegetation and packed to the brim with meercats. With a palette of rich, saturated colors, an art director with a vivid imagination and a visual affects team over 500 people strong, there's a lot to look at.
The visuals are nothing less than stunning, but the carefully constructed scenes sometimes take the attention from the story... which isn't a terrible thing if we're honest. "Life of Pi" is a parable, and as such, is a bit heavy handed with its symbolism and message. The film is wonderfully cast, acted beautifully and seamlessly blends live action with animation (is that tiger real or not?). But when the skies are blue for miles in any direction, and the puffy clouds lazily dance on the gentle waves, it's easy to forget that this is a story about suffering. Don't worry, though, you'll be reminded. Probably more than you'd like.