Blatantly allegorical and loosely episodic, Life of Pi is bound to make its more literal-minded viewers squirm. But there's a genuine sense of wonder in this adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling novel, which a very assured Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, The Ice Storm) directs with lavish, picture-book grandiosity.
The movie begins with an adult Pi Patel (the honey-tongued Irrfan Khan) recounting his story to a writer (Rafe Spall). A young Pi (Suraj Sharma, in an accomplished debut performance) travels with his family from their home — a Pondicherry zoo — to North America, in a freighter packed with the zoo's livestock. After a freak storm capsizes the ship, the only survivors are Pi, a Bengali tiger, a zebra and a hyena, all jammed onto a curiously accommodating lifeboat.
Pi's resulting struggle to stay alive is a physical one, but the story also requires of him a great deal of moral and spiritual introspection. As he learns how to fish and how to avoid being eaten by Richard Parker, the ravenous Bengali tiger, he must also complete a faith-testing quest. He must learn that there is more to life than sheer animal instinct, that the human spirit must transcend its amorally savage will to survive.
Lee and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) clearly share a fascination with the story's animals and their mannerisms, and it's this affinity that keeps symbolism from overtaking the movie. These fever-dream versions of animals, moving through Lee's tableaux vivants, feel like much more than players in a sermon. Though he's in just one or two scenes, the hyena here is probably better developed as a character than any number of human protagonists on film right now.
Go to Life of Pi for the animals. Stay for the gnostic speculation.