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Eye of the storm; Ang Lee's ‘Life of Pi' is a wondrous cinematic achievement

His name is Pi.

No, it has nothing to do with 3.1416 and the mathematical ratio of diameters and circumferences, but rather "the most beautiful public pool in Paris," the Piscine Molitor. Unfortunately, his fellow schoolchildren abbreviate the name of Piscine Molitor Patel with the schoolyard word for urination.

As resourceful as he is bright, he renames himself "Pi."

Before Ang Lee's astounding "Life of Pi" is over, he has survived a shipwreck and a long founder in mid-ocean with a perpetually hungry Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

It's tempting to fling words like "miracle" and "awe" around, but let's just settle for "visionary masterpiece" to denote what we see on-screen – something absorbing and extraordinary that you've never seen before or probably imagined, either.

Unless, of course, you have read Yann Martel's massive – as well as massively odd and massively successful – best-seller (7 million copies), also called "Life of Pi." Though we come to understand it as a distinctly post-modern story about storytelling, what we experience in Lee's film is cinematic wonderment in its purest form circa 2012.? Future technology will, no doubt, make even more things possible in movies, but, for the moment, you are seeing wild, terrifying, primal things in "Life of Pi" – ravenous big cats at perpetual feeding time, catastrophic ocean storms tossing boats around as if they were specks – with a graphic realism utterly unlike other films.

You've seen shipwrecks in movies before. And scary creatures, too. But "Life of Pi" literally waited a decade to be made for the cinematic technology to be just right.

When you watch the tale unfold, you will have absolutely no idea where the largest water tank ever used in a movie ends and a homicidal storm at sea begins. Nor will you know when you're seeing one of the four real tigers used as Richard Parker and when you're seeing the mind-bending triumph of animatronics and digital animation.

The whole point of cinematic animation and special effects always has been to make anything cinematically possible. Think of George Melies' 1902 "A Trip to the Moon." What's shown hasn't always been credible, of course. Even in something as recent and as stunning as Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park," there is a point where the creatures' menace – or beauty – becomes metaphorical rather than real, i.e. it's a gift the audience bestows on the movie from our childlike desire to be awed and shaken in our seats.

Spielberg always knew that desire is there. He's always known, too, how generous we are in bestowing it.

In "Life of Pi," what comes back at you isn't your own desire. It isn't your own gift that terrifies you but one of the most harrowing storms ever put on film – and the frights of a huge, hungry tiger whose ability to devour those lower on the food chain is total.

All of it is very much a story. The context is very much "once upon a time." But the horror is palpable and immediate.

And that, by the way, brings up a crucial caveat with "Life of Pi." Though the film's magic realism is spectacularly apt for older children and adults, it would be an awfully rough way for littler ones to get a crash course in the ways of nature – that, for instance, if a ship carrying a zoo full of animals is wrecked at sea, there will be a certain order of things if a tiger, a 12-year-old boy, a zebra and a hyena take refuge together on a lifeboat.

We adults know the zebra won't last long. Nor will a hungry hyena with slavering killing laughter of his own forever plastered on his face. It is nature's way on such a boat that the tiger's hunger will win out easily – and bloodily and cruelly, too. It would be a tough experience for littler ones in 3-D, not to mention resulting in complicated car rides home testing all the adult logic and tenderness parents possess.

At the same time, the genuine terrors and thrills of "Life of Pi" are matched by the greatest cinematic adaptation of what literature has long called "magic realism" I've ever seen – courtesy of Ang Lee, production designer David Gropman and cinematographer Claudio Miranda.

Lee, in his quiet way, has long since been known as a great filmmaker. His gifts are as lavish as they are impossible to pigeonhole. Yes, he's comfortable adapting literary sources, but they've been as varied as Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," the Annie Proulx story that became "Brokeback Mountain" and now "Life of Pi." Nor is he a respecter of physical and natural laws. He likes putting the impossible on-screen (see "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"). It's not much of an exaggeration that he, more than anyone we've got, is the embodiment of what movies are all about in the year 2012.

So his tale here is of Pi, the 12-year-old Indian boy whose family runs a zoo and perishes aboard a Japanese ship while taking the zoo to Canada. Pi and some animals – including Richard Parker – are left to survive as long as possible.

By the time it's over, you have feasted on both the terrors and the wonderments of nature – a whole world of sea and land creatures presented to us as the magic that the world can't help but seem to be.

All are seen through the eyes of a plucky, clever, infinitely resourceful boy who tells us that the Hindu gods "were my superheroes growing up" and who believes "animals have souls. I have seen it in their eyes."

Though there are parts for ?many other actors here – including the great French actor Gerard ?Depardieu (and almost Tobey Maguire, who was replaced for being too famous for his role) – the movie depends on the creative splendors of Lee and his remarkable people and the talents of young actor Suraj Sharma as Pi.

The result is, in the most literal and complete sense, wonderful.


The Life of Pi

4 stars (out of 4)

Suraj Sharma, Gerard Depardieu, Adil Hussain, Tabu and Rafe Spall in Ang Lee's 3-D adaptation of Yann Martel's best-seller about a boy stuck on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Rated PG for nature's violence, which will probably be upsetting to very young children. Now playing.