A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is a miraculous achievement of storytelling and a landmark of visual mastery. Inspired by a worldwide best-seller that many readers must have assumed was unfilmable, it is a triumph over its difficulties. It is also a moving spiritual achievement, a movie whose title could have been shortened to "life."
The story involves the 227 days that its teenage hero spends drifting across the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. They find themselves in the same boat after an amusing and colorful prologue, which in itself could have been enlarged into an exciting family film. Then it expands into a parable of survival, acceptance and adaptation. I imagine even Yann Martel, the novel's French-Canadian author, must be delighted to see how the usual kind of Hollywood manhandling has been sidestepped by Lee's poetic idealism.
The story begins in a small family zoo in Pondichery, India, where the boy christened Piscine is raised. Piscine translates from French to English as "swimming pool," but in an India where many more speak English than French, his playmates of course nickname him "pee." Determined to put an end to this, he adopts the name "Pi," demonstrating an uncanny ability to write down that mathematical constant that begins with 3.14 and never ends. If Pi is a limitless number, that is the perfect name for a boy who seems to accept no limitations.
The zoo goes broke, and Pi's father puts his family and a few valuable animals on a ship bound for Canada. In a bruising series of falls, a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and the lion tumble into the boat with the boy, and are swept away by high seas. His family is never seen again, and the last we see of the ship is its lights disappearing into the deep — a haunting shot that reminds me of the sinking train in Bill Forsyth's "Housekeeping" (1987).