Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi sold enough copies to reside on a sizable chunk of the world’s bookshelves, but the story really only works as a movie. Perhaps not this movie—that is, Ang Lee’s mostly respectable, mostly diverting, somewhat hobbled mega-budgeted prestige adaptation. Like 127 Hours, Life of Pi spends most of its time trapping us with a solitary man: Indian teen Piscine Patel, aka Pi (Suraj Sharma), is the lone survivor of a sunken freighter. Alas, he has to share a roomy lifeboat with a quartet of animals (long story), whose numbers quickly shrink to just one: a hungry, pissy, angry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (another long story). Pi spends 227 days adrift, rationing supplies, catching fish and trying to both outsmart and tame his feral lifeboat-mate, while Lee tries even harder to keep this cinematically interesting.
The shiniest weapon in Lee’s arsenal is 3-D, and like the technology’s best practitioners, he doesn’t rely solely on shit comin’ at ya. His 3-D is subtle without being, you know, subtle, used more for depth of field and for waves, which routinely lap up and down right “in front” of our eyes. Though Pi should be seen in three dimensions, it will have a life after theaters because Lee knows to use good old-fashioned filmmaking. As Alfred Hitchcock did with Lifeboat, Lee always finds new ways and new angles with which to shoot what should be visually redundant. Soon, our hero’s grip on reality loosens, and Lee starts filling the screen with outrageous colors: yellow sunsets, neon-blue waters, hot-purple plants. But things are more gripping when it’s little more than expertly chosen shots.
It’s also, needless to say, better at sea than on land. Pi is only the third movie Lee has ever directed without screenwriter James Schamus. His scripts can be overly novelistic, but surely he’d fare better than David Magee (Finding Neverland), whose adaptation is a clumsy mash of idiosyncratic detail, listless framing devices and religious goop (from the novel, but still). The Job-like story, we’re assured, will “make you believe in God.” No, but I do believe that Ang Lee can direct the shit out of nothing but some dude on a boat trying not to die and/or become lunch.