Ang Lee is a director of interior moods; even his plunge into big-budget superheroics, 2003’s Hulk, sported more psychodrama than a Woody Allen movie. So it’s mystifying that this director—at ease among the po-faced quiet of closeted cowboys and forlorn martial artists—should turn up now at the helm of a gushingly spiritual survival tale, one with the Oprah Winfrey stamp of approval. Life of Pi isn’t a perfect match: The story concerns an Indian teen (Suraj Sharma, a high-energy find) who, after having lived through a shipwreck that sweeps away his entire family and most of their zoo animals, finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with a ferocious Bengal tiger. A few other creatures onboard don’t last long, and soon, man and cat are squaring off over limited territory, waiting for a weak moment.
As with Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, the movie bonks you over the head with symbolism, the calm ocean becoming a mirror that reflects the essence of we’re-all-in-it-together mutuality and respect. But there’s a completely different reason to applaud Lee’s evolution into an Avatar-style effects man: His suspense sequences are fantastic. Apparently, a Hitchcockian technician has waited patiently to emerge from the guy behind The Ice Storm; every rope-tugging stratagem of our hero and snarling swipe of the tiger is buffed to an ingenious sheen, the sharks quietly swirling around them like spectators. The movie works on a bedrock level that many ostensible action films forget. Let New Age viewers in your crowd get misty-eyed—there’s plenty here for anyone.
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Cast and crew