'Animals have souls -- I can see it in their eyes," says a young Indian boy trying to commune with a Bengal tiger in "Life of Pi." Less romantic is Pi's father, a zookeeper. "What you're seeing," he counters, "are your own emotions reflected back at you."
Either way, there's something thrillingly alive inside that tiger, even though he's largely generated by motion-capture animation. That process continues to advance beyond early experiments like "The Polar Express," and this majestic animal -- arguably the star of the film -- has an almost palpable warmth. You'd never guess that among his creators is the studio Rhythm and Hues, which also gave us the Geico gecko.
Pi Patel (played as a young man by Suraj Sharma, an appealing first-timer) calls the tiger Richard Parker (it's a clerical mix-up that stuck) and the two will soon become closely acquainted. After their cruise ship to America sinks in a massive storm, they must share a tiny lifeboat. What follows is a tale of bare-bones survival, but also Pi's attempt to find meaning and beauty beyond mere animal existence.
Directed by Ang Lee ("Brokeback Mountain") and based on Yann Martel's novel, "Life of Pi" is an absolutely gorgeous movie, aglow with color and filled with wraparound 3-D effects. At times, though, the whimsical visuals trivialize the knotty parable at this film's center, which slowly emerges as an older Pi (Irrfan Khan) tells his unlikely story to an unnamed visitor (Rafe Spall). There are many mysteries here, but Lee seems unwilling to let them linger, preferring instead to wrap them up simply and sweetly.
"Life of Pi" doesn't pack the cosmic punch it could. But it's wonderful to look at, and there's more to it than meets the eye.
PLOT A young man is stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
CAST Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
BOTTOM LINE That motion-capture tiger is a thing of beauty, and so is this entire film. But the sugary-sweet veneer sometimes breaks the spell.