The Young Man and the Sea

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


Director Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” adapted by screenwriter David Magee from Yann Martel’s fantastical novel, is engaging and fascinating. However, if you’ve already been through your Hermann Hesse period and have a gift for glibly dismissing that which no longer resonates, “been there, done that” may apply to this foray into Eastern philosophy.


Granted, this is big, expansive, colorful and technically accomplished filmmaking. And yet, though one can’t help emote for the title character, who finds himself shipwrecked and holed up with a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat for 227 days, my religious faith remains unaltered. Alas, G-d is still a nice old guy with a long white beard and a Jewish accent.


Pi Patel, splendidly portrayed by four different actors at various stages of his life, would have liked it if I had at least expanded on that belief as a result of the spiritual adventure that begins when his dad decides to sell their zoo in India. The ensuing journey across the Pacific, the devastating storm they encounter and what then follows is all rather trippy.


A combination of sensational cinematography, animatronics and computer razzmatazz makes for a world that flits from real to surreal, with a few gauzy stops between those two conditions. Likewise, the spare but pungent script encompasses an amalgam of styles, ranging from the stuff of Rudyard Kipling to Roald Dahl to the Brothers Grimm.


Now, I can’t speak for your kid. But a gaggle of moppets whose parents figured they’d find this PG offering metaphysically enlightening seemed much more intent on finding a shorter route to the facilities and the concession stand. But be warned, ye who don’t believe in babysitters. The Bengal tiger will scare the bejesus out of anyone south of 8.


Amazing stuff, these electronic scions of yesteryear’s puppetry. When Richard Parker (the tiger’s name, as it is whimsically explained by Pi) bares his teeth in a wide-mouthed growl, I could swear Smell-O-Vision was also an integral part of this film’s technological wonders. I admit to launching from my seat a couple of times, and I’m a little past 8.


Shades of Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat” (1944) and the film adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” (1958), life aboard the double-ended skiff in an ocean of unknown perils is at once confining and unbearably desolate. Pi is initially joined by the tiger, a hyena, an orangutan and a zebra. But that soon whittles down to the chief protagonists.


Or, is it antagonists, as the story subtly and philosophically asks? It works on a bunch of levels, with both a Western and Eastern impetus tossed into the grand quandary director Lee astutely poses. And if you’re up for the ruminative exercise, the gray matter will doubtless explore whatever nooks and crannies of the human existence it finds apt.


But again, don’t expect any hard and fast answers or life changing epiphanies. Rather, as the pundits have informed us over the ages, the odyssey is the destination. Viewers with a penchant for the quantitative could feel overly Yin and Yanged at times. What might really throw them is the big surprise at the end. Obscure hint: Think “Sophie’s Choice.”


That said, the saga is related in the traditional, British armchair style, except that it’s in a Montreal kitchen and over a humble meal where the adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) regales an aspiring author (Rafe Spall) in search of a story with his extraordinary tale. Switching back to these ordinary circumstances helps insure our suspension of disbelief.


Good performances all around, beginning with Ayush Tandon’s 11-year-old Pi telling his dad, played by Adil Hussain, that he wishes to be both a Hindu and a Christian, imbue the work with a personalness that facilitates the yarn’s touching family angle. But Suraj Sharma as the valiant and likable castaway handles the, er, tiger’s share of the acting.


Engaging the muscularly fearsome feline in a war of stamina and wits that intriguingly speculates about the enigmatic relationship between man and beast, Pi brings into high relief both the strength and fragility of our humanity. Chills abound with each of Richard Parker’s multi-clawed swipes, making it hard to believe he is but a blue screen apparition.


To his credit, Ang Lee puts us right in that lifeboat with both parties, awash among the universe’s dangerous uncertainties and great possibilities. At seat’s edge, one second alarmed, the next moment plunged into reflection, round and round you go, just where, it’s hard to know, ironically verifying that “Life of Pi” will be met by both friend and foe.

 “Life of Pi,” rated PG, is a Fox 2000 Pictures release directed by Ang Lee and stars Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan and Ayush Tandon. Running time: 127 minutes.