"Life of Pi's" apparent reverence for a young boy's pantheist views jumbles three stories that mix an idyllic existence with harsh reality and a surreal fantasy.
When we meet Pi Patel, he is a boy living on a South Indian farm, transformed into a zoo by his father. Pi's idyllic existence is narrated in flashback by a middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan). His first life-changing experience relates a story that traces the evolution of Pi's first name.
To his father's chagrin, (nicely portrayed by an underused Adil Hussain), the inquisitive lad is a pantheist, equally attracted to all religions. Dad warns that believing in everything results in believing in nothing, but whether Pi's religious beliefs make a whit of difference to the ensuing action, is not clear.
More importantly, these early scenes introduce Richard Parker, a full-grown Bengal tiger acquired by the zoo when Pi (Ayush Tandon) is just 11. The boy naïvely believes he can persuade the tiger to be his friend, but he learns differently from his father's practical demonstration between the tiger and a goat (the deadly deed occurs offscreen).
Meant to acquaint us with Pi's philosophical outlook, this opening section is a shaggy dog tale that constantly reaches for meaning beyond its grasp. While it might be useful in understanding Pi's psychological development, the cutesy tone of these scenes have little to do with what happens to Pi during the main portion of the story.
As he stands on the precipice of manhood, Pi's idyllic life is interrupted because his family loses their land. Played as an older teen by Suraj Sharma, Pi promises to come back for his girlfriend after learning his father has booked passage for the family -- and its zoo animals - aboard a freighter bound for Canada.
Once at sea, the ship is caught and sinks in a terrible storm that ultimately strands Pi and several animals on a well-provisioned, 27-foot lifeboat.
Director Ang Lee creates his CGI Richard Parker in a triumph of menacing glory. Shoulder blades push against waves of orange, white and black fur, fangs are bared beneath calculating golden eyes that convey the tiger's single-minded intent.
Pi's remarkable strategies to survive Richard Parker's onslaught, and the film's gorgeous cinematography, partially make up for a sea of shortcomings.
What occurs aboard the lifeboat seems utterly, if impossibly credible, until the boat arrives in a strange land plucked from a child's fairytale.
"The Life of Pi," adapted from the novel by Yann Martel, consists of three very loosely connected stories that broadcast the author's reluctance to settle on one tale. He may believe in this method of storytelling, but I come down on the side of Pi's dad who he argues that committing to one thing, and sticking with it, is more challenging and infinitely more rewarding.