“Pi’s story will make you believe in God.” A writer is told this in the beginning of “Life of Pi.” After viewing the mesmerizing state-ofthe art film, you may not believe in God, but you will believe in the magic of digital, CGI, motion-capture 3D. In fact, it is the best threedimensional movie ever made, surpassing “Avatar.”
In the center is its real (or not so real) star, Richard Parker. Despite his human name (a clerical error, we’re informed), Richard Parker is not human. He’s a Bengal Tiger. At least, he looks like one, though he is actually an incredible special effect.
He shares a lifeboat with Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma). The odd couple are thrown together after a monstrous storm at sea…pitching and churning so effectively in 3D that you may not keep down your popcorn. Pi, his zookeeper father and family are on the ship transporting an assortment of animals from India to Canada when the storm strikes. The ship sinks suddenly and beautifully in mind-blowing underwater visuals. The soul survivor is Pi, along with a frisky hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and Richard Parker. Before long, it’s just Pi and Richard Parker.
The long struggle for survival involves flying fish, sharks, a magnificent phosphorescent whale and a floating island filled with meercats.
It ultimately comes down to Pi’s debt to Richard Parker. Pi owes the tiger his life, he says, because it is the fear of being eaten that keeps him alive.
Based on the Yann Martel novel, versatile film maker Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) spends a little too much time setting up Pi’s “Robinson Crusoe” quest. As a middle-age man (Irrfan Khan), Pi tells his life story for an unnamed journalist (Rafe Spall). Being faithful to the book sometimes sinks the pure cinematic spectacle.
Do we really need to spend 45 minutes watching Pi grow up? We learn that he shortened his name from “Piscine Molitor” (his uncle’s favorite Parisian swimming pool) to avoid being picked on in school. The Hindu deities were “superheroes” to him. A kindhearted priest made sense of Jesus (“Thank you, Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ”). Fine.
The 3D digital dynamism doesn’t kick in until we meet Richard Parker. He’s not a Disney, “Narnia” animal with human qualities. In fact, according to visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, a real tiger was not used because, “We didn’t want our actor to get eaten.”
No matter. Richard Parker is real enough to scare you out of your seat. And as he ages, his skeleton can be seen moving under his skin.
Experience “Life of Pi.” But see it in 3D. To quote another famous tiger named, “Tony,” it’s “Gr-r-r-reat!”