Dir. Ang Lee
(2012, PG, 127 minutes)

Life of Pi is a visually beautiful film on the dividing line between reality and fantasy. Taking place largely on a small lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck leaves its title character (played by Suraj Sharma) adrift with a Bengal tiger, it is not shot to reflect a real place or time. Its shows the overwhelming force of nature and the creatures living in it – glowing, undulating, rising up, mercilessly tossing around the little boat, or at other times gently cradling it. It feels like a fairy tale or a dream. We’re seeing a shipwreck and its aftermath called up by the memory and filtered through the imagination.

It’s directed by Ang Lee, who never repeats himself, in the last decade switching from superheroes (The Hulk), to tragic romance (Brokeback Mountain), to erotic intrigue (Lust, Caution), to music comedy (Taking Woodstock), and now to this ethereal parable. He takes an almost painterly approach, using visual effects, cinematography, and production design to create an impressionistic feeling of life out at sea.

The storytelling achievement isn’t quite as great as the visual feat, mostly because of a framing device that, according to a friend of mine who has read the novel by Yann Martel, is unique to the film. The screenplay by David Magee sets up the story by introducing us to an adult Pi (the great character actor Irrfan Khan), who tells his story of survival to a writer looking for inspiration. The writer (Rafe Spall) has no name, which is fitting because he also has no personality. He exists only to hear the story, “ooh” and “aah,” and spell out themes that don’t need clarifying. Cutting back to him and Pi in the present day continually breaks the momentum of the harrowing shipwreck story, turning a potentially great film into a merely very good one.

Cut out the framing device – really it plucks right out – and you’d have a narrative with greater urgency, tension, and better flow. The danger and power of the ocean would be even more pronounced; instead it’s mollified by interruptions from Pi’s living room in suburban Canada, which is a nice place to live, but it’s no place for a tall tale of survival.