Mystical and endless as the number pi, “The Life of Pi” works on a number of levels, all of them enchanting.
The movie begins with a grown-up Piscene Patel (Suraj Sharma, a marvelously talented newcomer) being interviewed about his extraordinary experience. Pi tells his interviewer he will relate a story that “will make you believe in God.” And he then becomes the narrator of the compelling tale that makes up the better part of the movie.
As a boy, he tries different walks of faith. (He also tries a new nickname, Pi, which he earns in a very clever way.) He pursues different avenues of each faith so he might “know God.”
Pi lives with his family in India, where they manage a zoo that includes a tiger named Richard Parker. (Because of a mix-up in shipping, the tiger’s name stuck.) As Pi grows up, he meets a girl with whom he falls in love.
But their romance is cut short when his father announces the family must sell the zoo animals and move to Canada. All of the animals are packed aboard a ship that meets with disaster during a storm.
The shipwreck’s aftermath involves four animals — a dying zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and Richard Parker — and Pi, who briefly occupy a lifeboat together. Eventually, it’s only Pi and Richard Parker who battle the elements and each other.
The third part of the movie involves an encounter with a bizarre uncharted island populated by meerkats and Pi’s eventual return to civilization. (This is not a spoiler because we know right from the beginning that Pi survived to tell his tale.)
The special effects used throughout the movie are incredible. I couldn’t tell where the real animals ended and the CGI creatures began, whether it was at the zoo, aboard the lifeboat or during an astonishing scene involving a whale. Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) paints portraits with his camera. If you see the show in 3-D, you’ll take in an added dimension to its beauty.
It’s a movie with depth and a story that serves as an allegory about the importance of a name, how a story is told and how we justify our faith. It is as beautifully told as the best-seller on which it is based.