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Special effects in 'Life of Pi' jaw-dropping

7:54 PM, Nov. 21, 2012
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Suraj Sharma and a Bengal tiger star in 'Life of Pi.' / 20th Century Fox
Suraj Sharma appears in a scene from the motion picture 'Life of Pi.' (Gannett/Twentieth Century Fox/File) / GANNETT

‘Life of Pi’

Star rating:★★★
Rated: PG for emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril

Suraj Sharma appears in a scene from the motion picture 'Life of Pi.' (Gannett/Twentieth Century Fox/File) / GANNETT

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Nine out of 10 times, when someone says, “You’ve never seen anything like this in a movie,” it’s bunk.

Not so with “Life of Pi.” Director Ang Lee has cracked the 3-D riddle in his film about a teenager trapped aboard a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, making the most of jaw-dropping effects since a certain, lesser movie that involved blue creatures and bad dialogue topped the all-time box-office record. (OK, OK: “Avatar” is pretty much the definition of all hat and no cowboy when it comes to using effects in movies.)

The look of the film is jaw-dropping at times, beautiful to behold. If the story, based on the popular novel by Yann Martel, can’t quite keep pace with the look of the film (and, alas, it can’t) it will take you a while to notice.

That’s partly because of newcomer Suraj Sharma as Pi, at least the version of him we see for much of the film. He’s captivating as a boy trying to survive but also to live up to his beliefs. As you know if you’ve read the novel, Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a massive Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, one who is not shy about making a meal out of just about anything that moves (as we learn in graphic detail). Pi must learn to keep himself alive and, given his spiritual nature, keep Richard Parker alive, too.

A framing device, in which the adult Pi tells his story to a writer, might have been unnecessary if not for the performance of Irrfan Khan, perfectly capturing the calm of a grown-up version of a boy who manages to become a Hindu, Muslim and Christian. His faith will serve him well on the lifeboat, and, in addition, later in life.

We first meet Pi as a boy (played by Ayush Tandon) in Pondicherry, India, where his parents own a zoo. They decide to move to Canada, and travel on a boat that capsizes in a storm. Pi is a teenager by this time, winding up in a lifeboat, the only human survivor. A few other animals make it to the boat, too, but there’s that tiger. …

Pi’s journey is as much spiritual as anything else. By the end of the film, that spirituality becomes a little heavy-handed, though not off-putting.

What’s striking about the film, in addition to the effects, is the calm with which Lee tells the story. He’s patient, sure of himself at every turn, and Sharma is the perfect choice for that sensibility. “Life of Pi” isn’t the best movie you’ll see this year, but it’ll certainly be the best-looking, and something more, besides.

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