Gorgeous adaptation of Yann Martel's novel stars newcomer Suraj Sharma as Piscine "Pi" Patel, a young soul-searcher whose father runs a zoo in French-influenced Pondicherry until the late '70s, when it's decided that the Patel family, and their animals, must leave India for a better life in Canada. Nature has other plans, and after a devastating shipwreck in the Pacific, Pi finds himself the sole human survivor in a lifeboat - along with a short-lived quartet of zoo animals, in particular one very powerful tiger with the loaded name of Richard Parker.
At the beginning of the film, the older Pi (Irrfan Khan, quite strong here after his thankless role in the most recent Spider-Man movie) tells his tale to a young writer looking for inspiration. "I have a story that will make you believe in God," he tells the writer. We then spend the first act with Pi during the years before the shipwreck, and his various religious quests.
What seems at first like it might be a faith-based film becomes something else after its dramatic second act, which is all about Pi and the tiger on the lifeboat. Without giving anything away, there is a surprise towards the end of the film that throws everything into question; how the viewer reacts to this twist provides the substance of Pi's "believe in God" admonition. So in effect I found it to be not a religious film, but a film that suggests why people choose religion.
Aside from that thought-provoking twist, the visuals are absolutely stunning, especially in this rare use of 3D for artistic purposes. Ang Lee often doesn't get enough credit as an auteur because he seems to have no distinctive authorial imprimatur - how can anyone possibly lump together Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Ice Storm, and Life of Pi in terms of style? Still, the humble Lee remains one of the greatest filmmakers working today, and once again shows total mastery over the medium.
Music, special effects, performances, cinematography, storytelling - they all come together perfectly in Life of Pi, a reminder that there still is such a thing as movie magic. It may be my favorite film of 2012.