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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014

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Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is in theaters now.
Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is in theaters now.

"Life of Pi" a magical journey for the eye

Talk about lofty goals.

"Life of Pi," director Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 bestselling novel, frames itself as the ultimate spiritual, religious adventure. Early on in the film, a character even states that he wants to hear a story that "will make you believe in God." If that wasn't enough, the movie's 3-D is supposed to revive audiences' pre-"Clash of the Titans" love for the gimmick. I don't know which feat would be more impressive.

So does "Life of Pi" have the emotional power to turn the religiously dubious into the devout? Eh, unlikely. Will it restore people's faith in 3-D? Possibly. If there's one thing that's undoubtedly confirmed after seeing Piscene Molitor Patel's sea-based saga, though, it's that Ang Lee is an outrageously talented and inventive visual director.

After setting the stage with a few stories about his unique name, school days and childhood religious experimentation, Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) tells a struggling author (Rafe Spall, previously seen talking cutesy with a deadly alien snake in "Prometheus") his epic tale of survival.

In his story, teenage Pi (impressive newcomer Suraj Sharma) miraculously survives a violent ship sinking while moving from India to Canada with his family. He, as well as a few exotic animals from his family's zoo, find their way onto a lifeboat, but after a sad series of events, only Pi and a beautiful but ravenous Bengal tiger are left alive. Together, the two must learn to survive the elements, hunger, mysterious islands and each other to pass this fierce test of faith.

Most of what ensues consists only of Pi and the tiger, named Richard Parker due to a clerical error, floating out on the lonely sea. It sounds like it has the potential to be a bore, but Lee fills the adventure with gorgeous and vibrant images that keeps viewers excitedly anticipating what surreal imagery they'll see next.

A sinking ship's lights hauntingly illuminate the world under the ocean's surface. The lifeboat looks like it's floating in the midst of a vast, mesmerizing emptiness; the horizon is a mere myth. A school of jellyfish gives the night a florescent glow. The word visionary gets tossed around a lot nowadays when talking about directors (Zack Snyder and Sam Raimi have both dubiously received the title), but after "Life of Pi," Lee proves he's one of the few who deserve it.

The 3-D adds a surprising depth to Lee's already rich visuals. In fact, it's so immersive that it's easy to take it for granted. Things aren't popping out or shouting "look at the 3-D!" at the audience. Instead, it makes the ocean feel even more vast and the lifeboat even more alone.

There are a few moments where the gimmick missteps, most notably during a siege of flying fish where it abruptly adds letterboxing (that's not good 3-D; that's cheating). I wouldn't say you have to see it in 3-D; it's not like "Avatar" where if you see it 2-D, you're getting a worse movie. But overall, it's an impressive addition that won't have you feeling buyer's remorse for the $3 upcharge.

Lee is almost as capable with the film's story as he is with the magical visuals. "Life of Pi"'s story takes the audience through a lot, starting with Pi's charming childhood experiences, a short-but-sweet romance and then finally hitting the open seas. There, all sorts of intense moments – namely a shipwreck that could give "Titanic" a run for its money and the suspenseful interactions with the increasingly hungry Richard Parker – take place. All the while, religious debates, discussions and frustrations arise, all well presented and intriguing, even when the visuals aren't busy wowing the audience.

The only unfortunate thing is that, for a journey so entrenched in spirituality, survival and uplift, it's rather emotionally distant. Pi's story just never hits the soul as strongly as it should. A large chunk of the problem is the "Big Fish/Curious Case of Benjamin Button"-esque frame story, which not only spoils the ending but just isn't all that interesting. Why would I want to watch these two regular guys chat when there's an epic tale of survival going on?

It's too bad because Khan, a veteran Indian actor previously seen in bit roles in "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Slumdog Millionaire," is very good, expressing the kind of happiness and sadness that such an experience would create. He seems even better when compared to Spall, who says every line with the kind of "Aw, shucks" wonder that can make "Life of Pi" seem a bit too pleased with itself.

Admittedly, though, if I looked as beautiful and as dazzling as "Life of Pi," I'd be pretty impressed with myself, as well.

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