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Article updated: 11/21/2012 9:03 AM

Ang Lee's 'Life of Pi' a rare, wondrous delight

By Dann Gire

It begins when a young writer strikes up a conversation with an old man who tells him to find someone named Pi, for he has an amazing story to tell, a story that will make you believe in God.

Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" is that story, about a young man named Pi and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

From the opening scene to the last, "Life of Pi" spins its narrative magic in glorious 3-D imagery that seamlessly works in the service of its epic tale celebrating the essence of the storytelling experience.

The unnamed writer (Rafe Spall) locates the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) and he obliges his listener with the story of his life, beginning with the origin of his unusual name, taken from a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

Pi tells his eager audience of one that as a young man (now a teenager played by charismatic nonprofessional actor Suraj Sharma), he lived with his parents at an India zoo where he became so interested in spiritual diversity that he came to regard himself as a Hindu/Christian/Muslim, much to Dad and Mom's chagrin.

The plot kicks in when Pi's parents decide to move their zoo to Canada, and load their animals in a cargo ship like so many denizens of Noah's ark. Then comes the storm and the sinking of the ship, one of the fiercest, more realistic and exhausting sequences ever committed to film (reportedly using the world's largest self-generating wave tank holding 1.7 million gallons of water). With hurricane winds whipping the rain and waves, Pi barely escapes to a tiny lifeboat.

He loses everything. His family. His home. He thinks he's alone.

Of course, he's not, for several zoo survivors climbed aboard the partially covered boat, some without his immediate knowledge: an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra and Richard Parker, hardly the "crouching tiger" in Ang Lee's martial arts fantasy with that "Hidden Dragon."

This tiger doesn't just crouch. It attacks. And eats. Richard Parker might just enjoy a big piece of Pi, too.

"Life of Pi" tracks Pi's survivalist adventure at sea for 227 days, and not a single second becomes tiresome or dull.

Lee, one of the most versatile and instinctive filmmakers working today, creates a spellbinding work of magical realism that immerses us in a world of wonder and awe. At night, Pi and Richard Parker witness nature's floor show as luminous fish and balloon-like jellyfish light up the ocean.

A majestic whale, dressed in nature's lanterns, leaps into the air in a dreamlike ballet that might have been an animated event in a Walt Disney classic.

A school of flying fish provides not only some welcome humor, but necessary food just as Pi runs out of goodies to keep his striped shipmate at bay.

If you have not read Yann Martel's 2001 book upon which "Life of Pi" is based, I recommend you see Lee's movie cold, and read the book later, for that will preserve a few astonishing surprises.

"Life of Pi" effortlessly blends spiritualism with realism and serves up a pungent mix of live-action and animation so carefully rendered, you will constantly ask yourself, How did they get a tiger to do that? (Richard Parker is mostly a computer-generated character created from four real Bengal tigers used as models.)

It will not ruin anything here to say that "Life of a Pi" is a rare motion picture that embraces the concept of metaphor.

It should be required viewing for any serious student of cinema, for Lee and his team of superior collaborators -- Mychael Danna's lively score, Claudio Miranda's retina-arresting photography and David Gropman's spectacular production design -- have created a wondrous work that will remain in the hearts and memories of its viewers for a time after the closing credits.

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