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Review: Spectacularly imaginative 'Life of Pi'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - First, "Life of Pi" is one of the more beautiful and strange movies available this year. Go see it. Second, if you are one of the people who tried to read the novel and stalled, don't let that stop you. The slow, talky opening of the book has been eliminated. Third, you can even take your children to this PG-rated movie, which is seldom the case with genuinely adult movies (and I don't mean sex-saturated "adult" movies).

Director Ang Lee, already legendary for such sumptuously visual movies as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Eat Drink Man Woman," has given us a film nearly beyond imagination. Even during the opening credits you will be watching exotic surprises. You will also laugh at precisely the material that made the beginning of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel a bit heavy on philosophical issues. And because the bulk of the movie occurs out on the vast Pacific Ocean, the story can show spectacularly imaginative scenes automatically beyond the experience of anybody who has never been adrift at sea for months.

The story is easy to describe but tricky. A teenager from India, Pi Patel, the son of a zookeeper, has to move to Canada with his family. Pi's father sells off most of the animals, but those he can sell most profitably himself he ships in a Japanese freighter, along with his family (himself, his wife, two sons)so they can care for the animals on the voyage. So far, it's just a charming, pretty movie.

Then the ship sinks in the open sea and all the people onboard are lost except for Pi. Now an extraordinary adventure begins. Pi is the lone human survivor on a well-stocked 26-foot lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific — plus four animals from the zoo: an injured zebra, a gentle orangutan, a vicious hyena, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger. For months.

To keep you from immediately snickering and saying, "No way," the story is designed as a flashback with a twist. From almost the outset, you know that Pi survived because he tells the story himself to a visiting writer, who listens in awe but also comments on the fable-like events with doubt, effectively acting as a stand-in for the audience (the identical structure used in the book). Then in addition, at the very end, a minor inquiry is held to determine the legal facts involved in what happened. So the story doesn't stop when Pi is saved. In a final turn, the ending (which I won't give here) is thrown at the viewer as a kind of challenge. That ending is clever, too, even though everyone probably won't be satisfied.

Aside from the astounding drama of watching a bright but understandably nervous zookeeper's son trying to outwit a Royal Bengal tiger, one of Earth's most versatile and effective predators, we are also treated to two hours of natural beauty for which director Ang Lee has found a special form of emphasis. He shot the movie in 3D.

Lee claims that using the 3D format was what allowed him to "crack the book" and that "the ocean is perfect for 3D." Though I was disconcerted, as always, when another pair of crazy-lens glasses was thrust at me, I completely forgot about them within seconds. Lee was right. You will marvel at the mysteries of the ocean he presents to you. I doubt that you will complain about any of the computer-generated imagery either.

One final note: You probably will not recognize any of the cast of international actors, with the possible exception of a glimpse of Gerard Dépardieu and the presence of the lovely Tabu, the famed Indian actress who plays Pi's mother. She also played a leading role in "The Namesake" in 2006. Otherwise, you witness a story almost entirely strange and unfamiliar. Director Ang Lee actually went to the trouble of taking Tobey Maguire out of the movie (he was originally cast as the writer-audience) because he was too jarringly recognizable. Suraj Sharma, the 17-year-old actor who so convincingly plays Pi Patel, has never acted professionally before, and he was cast — out of 3,000 others — only because he happened to accompany his brother to an audition.

The end result is a remarkable fable of a beautifully dangerous animal, the awesome ocean, and some strange human mixtures of love and hope and will power.

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