When I think of Academy Award-winning Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, the first word that comes to mind is ambition.  He could have done what most directors of his Asian background do, which is stick to foreign language films in the overseas market delivering stock melodrama and martial arts projects audiences will buy.  He could have stayed in the Eat Drink Man Woman wheelhouse and made a nice career for himself.  Instead, since 1995, Ang has crossed into the international mainstream with a plethora of challenging, artful, and, at times, controversial endeavors.

Ang Lee has extended his considerable talent to Jane Austen, (Sense and Sensibility and its seven Academy Award nominations in his Hollywood debut), the American Civil War (Ride with the Devil), quirky and kinky 1970's American suburbia (the underrated The Ice Storm), wuxia Chinese epics (the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film and instant classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Marvel Comics (the slightly mishandled Hulk), a gay western love story (Brokeback Mountain, which earned Lee the first Best Director Oscar ever for a non-white male), and a twisty and erotic spy thriller (Lust, Caution).  While Hulk could have been career suicide (and, by his own word, early retirement), he redeemed himself with Brokeback Mountain and re-established his integrity as a worldly filmmaker.  

There are only a handful of great directors who can boast a resume this diverse and ambitious.  With that courageous history in mind, it was no surprise to hear that Ang Lee had saved Life of Pi, a project regarded un-filmable by many, from nine years in development hell at 20th Century Fox.  The beloved, revered, and richly-hued 2001 novel of faith and survival by Yann Martel bounced through M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) before coming to Ang Lee and Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee.  As wayward a journey as the novel itself, the challenging film project landed in the right hands.

By making the creative decision to use predominantly computer-generated sets and imagery and shoot Life of Pi  in 3D (two new mediums for the director), Ang Lee has crafted easily the most visually appealing and beautiful film of the year.  The use of 3D in Life of Pi  is as artistically cued and creatively appropriate as Martin Scorsese's elegant and adept use of it in Hugo from last Thanksgiving.  Combined with an enthralling and exciting story, Life of Pi is one of the best and most intimate movie experiences you'll see this year.

Life of Pi tells the recollected autobiography of Piscine Molitor Patel (outstanding Indian actor Irrfan Khan, last seen for American audiencea in The Amazing Spider-Man), who, after some hazing from his schoolmates, chooses to go by "Pi" instead of a name that is phonetically pronounced "pissing."  In the 1960's, the Patel family runs a local zoo in a botanical garden within Pondicherry, a town part of French India.  Throughout his childhood, Pi seeks his father's (Adil Hussein) approval and his destined path in life.  With an open mind and curious heart, Pi, though raised a Hindu, discovers both the Catholic and Muslim faiths and begins to follow all three to different degrees.  At 16 (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma), he's sweet on a local girl and on the cusp of becoming a man.

When fearful changing politics come to Pondicherry, the father decides to abruptly move the family to Canada for a new start.  With a chartered Japanese freighter trip, the family leaves to sell the zoo animals in North America when tragedy strikes.  During a fierce storm at sea, the distressed and damaged vessel sinks (in a scene right there with the plane crash in Flight) leaving only Pi, the prized Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, a spotted hyena, an injured zebra, and a female orangutan as the only miraculous survivors on a single lifeboat.  Stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a smattering of supplies, Pi and the animals fight the elements, the sea, starvation, animalistic urges, and the wavering values of hope and faith for survival.

Just as the marketing teases, the visual splendor of Life of Pi is tremendous.  With the blessings of James Cameron, the depth of 3D here gives outstanding scope to both kinetic scenes of thrill and quiet scenes of reflection and isolation.  It never feels like a gimmick the way it does in most other films that exploit it as a way of making more money.  The wilds of land and sea created by many visual effects departments and digitally shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) are nothing short of gorgeous in their wonder, color, and detail.  The effects are seamless for a movie that never dipped a toe in an actual ocean, using a wave tank built in an abandoned Taiwanese airport for over five months.  To further add to the amazing CGI magic, the most impressive element, by far, is our lead animal character of tiger Richard Parker.  Real tigers were brought in for reference, but, word is 98% of what you see are ones and zeros on a hard drive, right down to every whisker and snarl.  Framed with delightful and understated musical score from Mychael Danna, the bright style of this world is exquisite and a triumph for Ang Lee to push the medium of CGI and 3D use to new heights.  Prepare to gasp a few times and pick your jaw up off your lap.

After the movie's style, the performances are honest and realistic in providing the thought-provoking and rich adventure of personal survival and growth that is Life of Pi.  The choice to use mostly unknown actors, especially Suraj Sharma, was a good one in that you are absorbed into their stories without distraction.  The young gentleman has to carry this movie nearly by himself and acting off of green screens and invisible surroundings.  His growth in performance matches his character's on-screen and it's a great journey.

Of course, as a non-book reader, I can only forward the testament of others who say the religious elements have been dialed down and scaled back for Ang Lee's movie.  Even if they are indeed scaled back, the weaving of Hindu, Christian, and Islamic elements add impressive connecting points for the audience.  Still, there is likely a saturation point where audiences aren't going to buy it.  Like the Pi character, it really depends on where your heart is as well in bearing witness to this tale.  That said, I will join the others that call Life of Pi poetic and lyric in the way it uses its religious themes. 

As I will talk about more in my lessons, survival situations build character and test wills.  The gravity and weight of that experience, even as fictionally parable and symbolic in nature as Life of Pi intended, is treated very well by Lee and never comes across as cheesy or overwrought whatsoever.  Nevertheless, with its mixture of faiths and stylized believability, Life of Pi might not appeal to everyone, despite its family-friendly PG rating.  I keep coming back to the comparisons to the equally-PG and 3D Hugo from a year ago.  No one questions the visual or technical quality of Scorsese's film and no one should with Lee's either, but you either find the elegant romanticism in Hugo's love letter to early French cinema or Life of Pi's faith-related survival story heart-warming or over your head.  I made the possible mistake of shaving a star off of Hugo last year because of the movie's somewhat obscure story center.  I don't think I can make that disrespectful error again to Life of Pi, even in a similar situation.  When combined with its technical merit and achievement, I cannot discount the story Ang Lee successfully tells.  Mark this down as one of the year's best and worthy challenge to see and interpret for yourself.

LESSON #1: SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST-- When push comes to shove in a life-or-death survival situation, instincts and natural selection take over.  In most circumstances, the strong survive and the weak do not.  The lifeboat of Life of Pi is a microcosm of such a situation.  With animals present, you play the food chain dominance game, but, with people instead, you might see human brutality bubbling up.  For Pi to maintain his sanity and humility is a commendable and harrowing experience.

LESSON #2: THE TENUOUS RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MAN AND BEAST-- Extending from Lesson #1, this second lesson dives into the specific relationship between Richard Parker and Pi Patel.  Without fake ploys of personified animal emotion that many other movies are guilty of wringing out onto the audience, the respect between man and beast is well developed and portrayed fairly.  The tiger never loses his feral roots to become some kind of Aslan figure from C.S. Lewis.  At the same time, man is still flawed and fallible but capable of equally garnering an animal's respect in return.

LESSON #3: THE HOPE AND FAITH REQUIRED TO SURVIVE-- There's no doubt that a huge part of a survival situation is physical, but an equally important part is the mental component.  For as much as one's body will fail them, so will their will, hope, and faith in such desperate straits.  Both the body and the mind need to be strengthened, conditioned, maintained and, eventually, rescued.  Pi reaches many highs and lows that challenge his hope and faith within each of the three religious doctrines he uses to steer his path and move his compass in life.  Some come away from tests of fortitude like that broken while others come out enlightened.