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'Life of Pi' is a gorgeous film rendering of the best-selling novel

REVIEW: Technology employed by sensitive hands brings to vivid life a work that would have been inconceivable onscreen until very recently in "Life of Pi." Ang Lee, that great chameleon among contemporary directors, achieves an admirable sense of wonder in this tall tale about a shipwrecked teenager stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, a yarn that has been adapted from the compellingly peculiar best-seller with its beguiling preposterousness intact.

Like the venerable all-purpose entertainments of Hollywood’s classical era, this exceptionally beautiful 3D production should prove accessible to and embraceable by all manner of audiences, signaling substantial commercial possibilities domestically and probably even moreso internationally. 

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Yann Martel’s 2001 novel was one of those out-of-the-blue one-shots, a book with a madly fanciful premise so deftly handled that it won the Man Booker Prize and sold 7 million copies. Part survival story, part youthful fable, part grade-school spiritual rumination and assessment of humanity’s place in the animal kingdom, it’s man versus nature with a quizzically philosophical spin that’s easy to digest even for kids.

It’s not surprising that it took producer Gil Netter a decade to get the film made, as technology would not have permitted it to be realized, at least in anything close to its current form, until the past few years. Shot on location in India as well as in a giant tank in Taiwan where the open-water effects scenes were made, "Life of Pi" is an unusual example of anything-is-possible technology put at the service of a humanistic and intimate story rather than something that smacks of a manufactured product.

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The first enchantment is the town of Pondicherry, a former French colony in southern India that looks like paradise on Earth, nowhere moreso than at the zoo run by the father of young Pi. The nimble and faithful script by David Magee ("Finding Neverland") packs a good deal of character and cultural background into the first half-hour, humorously sketching the odd watery and mathematical implications of the protagonist’s name; neatly relating his unconflicted adoption of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam at age 12; portraying the warm family life he enjoys with his parents and older brother; and topped off with a taste of budding first love.

But hard times prompt his father to announce a move to Canada, where he will sell all the animals. A full hour is set at sea, beginning with a nocturnal storm and horrible shipwreck. When the air clears, the only survivors sharing space on a 27-foot lifeboat are Pi, an injured zebra, a maniacal hyena, a dour orangutan, a rat and -- hidden from sight for a spell under a tarp -- a large tiger.

Hunger and the law of the jungle assure that the population onboard is shortly reduced to two. To nonreaders of the novel, incredulity over Pi’s ability to co-exist with the tiger -- which goes by the name of Richard Parker -- is carefully addressed, and it’s essential that Pi proves adept at fashioning a makeshift raft that connects to the tiger’s lair by a rope.

Still, 227 days is a very long time to keep fed and maintain your wits on the open sea for both man and beast, and this floating journey is marked by ordeal (this must be the first film to present the spectacle of a seasick tiger) and such startling sights as a sudden flurry of flying fish, luminous jellyfish setting the nighttime sea aglow, a breaching whale and another enormous storm that looks to spell the end for Pi and Richard Parker.

But the final half-hour offers an other-worldly pit stop before coming to roost in a framing story in which the adult Pi tells his tall tale to a wide-eyed writer in a literary conceit that, at the very end, spells things out rather too explicitly.

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Meticulous care is evident in every aspect of the film. All three actors playing Pi are outstanding. The lion’s (or tiger’s) share of the burden falls on 17-year-old Suraj Sharma, the only human on view for half the time, obliged to act in a vacuum and convincingly represent all the physical demands. Lee looked at 3,000 candidates for the role (deliberately avoiding Bollywood talent) and found an unknown whose emotional facility is quite impressive. Ayush Tandon is captivating as the sponge that is young Pi, but absolutely imperative to the film’s success are the heart, lucidity and gravityIrrfan Khan provides as the grown-up Pi looking back at his experience.

Gerard Depardieu is in briefly to embody hulking menace as a nasty French cook aboard the ill-fated cargo ship.

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Creating a plausible, ever-changing physical world was the first and over-arching technical challenge met by the effects team. The extra step here was rendering a tiger that would be believable in every way, from its violent movements and threatening stares to its desperate moments when, soaked through and starving, it attempts to claw its way back on board the small boat. With one passing exception -- a long shot of the tiger making its way through a sea of meerkats that’s a bit off -- the representation of Richard Parker is extraordinarily lifelike.

The leap of faith required for Lee to believe this could be put up onscreen in a credible way was necessarily considerable. His fingerprints are at once invisible and yet all over the film in the tact, intelligence, curiosity and confidence that characterizes the undertaking. At all times, the film, shot byClaudio Miranda and with production design by David Gropman, is ravishing to look at, and the 3D work is discreetly powerful. Mychael Danna composed the emotionally fluent score.

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