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Updated Tuesday, July 29, 2014 at 04:28 PM

'Life of Pi': Gorgeous tale of shipwrecked survivors roars to life

By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times

Every generation of movie-

goers should have the opportunity to enjoy its own variation on "Robinson Crusoe" or "The Black Stallion" — the kind of nature-oriented survival epic that invariably emphasizes dazzling and exotic visuals.

Usually there's a shipwreck involved, and that's most spectacularly the case with Ang Lee's gorgeous "Life of Pi," based on Yann Martel's best-selling 2001 novel about a boy who loses his family to the Pacific Ocean in 1977.

But there's something unusually receptive about Pi, engagingly played by Ayush Tandon as a child, by Suraj Sharma as a teenager and by Irrfan Khan as a reminiscing adult. (The only "name" in the cast is Gérard Depardieu, who has a distracting cameo role as a disgruntled cook.)

Pi is on a spiritual quest even before disaster happens, eventually defining himself as a "Catholic Hindu" who can't make sense of Jesus' sacrifice but wants to be baptized.

After the ship sinks, Pi discovers that his human family has been replaced in a lifeboat by a miniature Noah's Ark, including one ferocious Bengal tiger, nicknamed Richard Parker, who wouldn't mind making a meal of Pi. It's up to Pi to convince the creature that he can satisfy his hunger in other ways.

As they dine on fish, conduct one-way conversations and survive another ferocious storm, Pi and Richard appear to have all the time in the world to solve this little problem. Eventually the tiger is coaxed into becoming a pal.

Lee, the Oscar-winning director of "Brokeback Mountain," working with 3D for the first time, turns "Life of Pi" into a liquid dream, propelled by images of people, fish and other creatures swimming almost as if they were equals in a sunbaked underwater paradise.

Nighttime scenes are equally enthralling, thanks in part to a daring and essential special- effects department. Many of the most beautiful images were created in India and Taiwan.

If the religious discussions in David Magee's script occasionally seem contrived, they're also quite sincere. Best of all, they fit the characters — and their ages.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Life of Pi,' with Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Tandon, Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Ang Lee, from a screenplay by David Magee, based on a novel by Yann Martel. 127 minutes. Rated PG for emotional content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril. Several theaters.


20TH CENTURY FOX / AP
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi."




JAKE NETTER / AP
"Life of Pi," with Suraj Sharma, follows a young man's survival and adventures after a disaster at sea.




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