Bad enough you’re shipwrecked and have lost your parents and brother, but Piscine ‘Pi’ Patel’s only 16, and the only living creature in the lifeboat with him is a Bengal tiger. Someone came up with the saying, “between the devil and the deep blue sea” to describe situations just like this.

No wonder he screams to God, “I have surrendered myself to You. What more do You want?” as tsunami-like waves crashed into the lifeboat.

Such an unlikely set of circumstances could have left us with a very short movie offering graphic scenes of the jungle cat ripping the flesh off the skinny young survivor. But to stretch it to 2 hours, and to allow him to survive 227 days floating beside a set of man-eating claws named Richard Parker, you need mighty ingenious ways to survive, and an amazing conversation with the spiritual master of the universe as Pi seeks God, while seeking dry land.

Based on the prize-winning novel by Yann Martel which was published in 2001, the movie vividly paints Pi’s life story from a tender young age as he grows up in the family-owned Pondicherry Zoo in India. They were transporting their live cargo of zebras, hyenas and orang utans when the fateful shipwreck killed most of them somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. As the movie begins, we see Pi as a 40-year-old Canadian immigrant played by Irrfan Khan, who is well known for his role as the Police Inspector in Slumdog Millionaire, recounting his encounters to a writer who is seeking for a story.

To depict the 3 stages of Pi’s life, 2 actors were used. 17-year-old newcomer Suraj Sharma was chosen from 3,000 budding actors to play the part of young Pi. Despite not having had acting experience, Sharma effectively portrays Pi with a full spectrum of believable emotions: being in love with a girl named Anandi, the rebellious nature of a teenager before the shipwreck, and the subsequent despair resulting from the only having a tiger for company and the lack of human interaction.

 Irrfan Khan had high praise for Shrama, saying, “People who have never acted (Suraj Sharma) bring in something raw, which is difficult for a practicing actor to bring because their acting becomes a method… and it becomes a cage at a point,” in an interview with WSJDigitalNetwork.

In the movie, Pi is an inquisitive boy with a healthy curiosity to seek God. He is fond of the animals his family owns and can be seen playing with a tiger through a cage in one of the scenes. Irrfan Khan, as an adult Pi, depicts a more matured and calm side of the protagonist. In fact, the only similiarity that could be drawn from the younger and older Pi is that distinct mass of curly hair.

Overall, the movie touches on 2 topics: a human’s primeval need to commune with God, and how humans can survive despite all odds. The young Pi is seen offering the Muslim prayer (Salah) in the afternoon, saying grace like a Christian before consuming his meal, and showing his gratitude to Hindu Lord Vishnu for being alive. Throughout the movie, Pi speaks aloud as he grapples with the existence of God and whether the divine has been there to help him through the ordeal. Despite the sensitive and potentially explosive nature of the topic, however, it never once comes across as preachy or evangelistic to the audience.

The film, which cost an estimated USD $120 million to produce, is helmed by director Ang Lee who won an Oscar for Best Director for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Critics and audiences alike have raved over how well he’s deployed 3D technology almost as deftly as James Cameron with Avatarin to ensure realism in such surreal circumstances.

Besides having moments of slapstick comedy and wittiness such the scene where Pi argues with his father about leaving Pondicherry to Canada (“We’ll be like Christopher Columbus!” exclaimshis father to which Pi replied, “But Columbus came to India!”) , the lines in this movie are thought-provoking and will leave you lost in epiphany such as the scene where Pi left the island after discovering its’ secret and expresses his thoughts on how God is always with him through all that has happened. Emotionally, Life of Pi will take you on a rollercoaster ride as some of the scenes are bound to tickle your funny bone, while others help you feel Pi’s pain as he fights to survive and recalls the accident that killed his family.

The computer-generated imagery (CGI) in this movie is also extremely believable, from the beautiful view of the ocean to the facial expressions of Richard Parker. An interesting fact to note is that the special effects team had at least 4 actual tigers on set so that they could mimic the expression down to the very last detail. The crisp sound quality also comes courtesy of the Dolby Atmos sound system at GVMax VivoCity, which really immerses you in the scenes. A great example is of the shipwreck, where tsunami-like waves crash into and jostle the ship as claps of thunder reverberate through the speakers. It’s a whole new experience, and for a moment it’ll have you believe you’re in a heavy thunderstorm too.

Pi physically survives his ordeal at sea by learning to fish with the little resources he has. He collects rainwater as much as he can, keeping them in small packets and drinking it at set intervals to prolong his supply.

In all, Life of Pi is a must-watch for anyone who enjoys movies that tie action with a touch of imagination-The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and Hugo (2011), for example. Admire the surreal, picturesque scenes, and be washed away by the highly believable CGI effects.

Rating: 4/5

Release Date: Nov 29, 2012 (Singapore)
Duration: 127 minutes
Language: English
Age Rating: PG13
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma Irrfan Khan Gerard Depardieu