Ang Lee delivers a gem of the ocean with Life of Pi

The 3-D is worth it for this one

A teenager must share a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with a hungry Bengal tiger. It sounds like a premise worthy of a “Far Side” cartoon, but Life of Pi so meticulously sets up its outlandish survival tale that director Ang Lee delivers the year’s most original and visually enthralling film.

Based on the novel by Yann Martel, the narrative unfolds as a tale shared by grown-up Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) with a frustrated writer (Rafe Spall) seeking an amazing story. An Indian living in Canada, Pi describes a life filled with anecdotes worthy of, well, a quirky piece of literature. He recounts being named “Piscine Molitor Patel” after a Parisian swimming pool complex, but that he adopted the nickname “Pi” once his schoolmates realized that his real first name sounds like “pissing.”

Pi’s father owns a zoo, and when the family moves to Canada to escape India’s political unrest, the Patel’s Japanese freighter sinks, leaving teenage Pi (Suraj Sharma) as the only survivor. The only human one, that is. A few of the zoo animals also make it to the lifeboat, but eventually Pi finds himself alone on the ocean with a tiger named Richard Parker. Sharma gives a remarkably affecting performance, playing long, dialogue-free scenes opposite CGI animals.

Life of Pi partly serves as a primer for both wild-animal behavior and survival at sea. Pi ingeniously tethers a makeshift raft to the lifeboat, so he can stay afloat while remaining out of claws’ reach. Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda render the fanciful tale in luminous images, with one sequence showing the becalmed, glassy ocean reflecting the pink sky of dawn, as if Pi and the boat are hovering in the clouds. With scenes of exotic animals raising their muzzles to the audience, the film’s 3-D effects enhance the story rather than distract from it.

Life of Pi resonates with literary works from The Jungle Book to the story of Jonah and the whale, and the film nudges the audience toward a spiritual interpretation, since Pi claims to practice at least three of the world’s major religions. Even if you’re skeptical about whether Pi’s story proves the existence of God, the film provides a moving commentary on our need for stories to make sense out of the world.