The film, whose budget far exceeded its planned $70 million cost, begins with a stunning series of shots of real animals in all their natural glory--at a zoo in Pondicherry, India (where the film was shot, along with a huge water tank in Taiwan). The movie revels in the lush colors and textures of India, as Lee sets up the movie's throughlines. His narrator, the adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn of "Slumdog Millionaire") tells his improbable survival story to a young Canadian novelist ("Anonymous" actor Rafe Spall, who replaced Tobey Maguire mid-film).
We meet Pi's family, who don't understand his attraction to three of the world's main religions, including not only Hinduism but Christianity and Islam, as well as the fierce zoo tiger Richard Parker, who ravages a goat in front of Pi's eyes. Pi's belief in both God and the soul of a tiger play out as he uses his wits (and a life boat instruction manual) to outsmart Richard Parker on a life boat for 227 days. "Thank you Vishnu, for introducing me to Christ," says Pi at one point. "God wasn't finished with me yet," he says at another.
As I suspected when I first saw footage at CinemaCon in April, this movie will play for critics, audiences and awards givers all over the world. It has the right elements: globally popular literary source (7 million copies sold); heart-warming family story from an A-list Oscar-winning director ("Brokeback Mountain"); and epic VFX. While "Life of Pi" will be a leading contender for Oscars, the film's technical accomplishments should certainly be recognized (especially "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" D.P. Claudio Miranda), as well perhaps as actors Sharma and Kahn. Richard Parker deserves a nomination as well.
One irony is that departed Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman backed this risky venture, but Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler and producer Gil Netter ("The Blind Side") also deserve credit for standing behind Lee's quest to make this remarkable film. "It has a gigantic visual effects component," Gabler told me as she was trying to convince Fox to give it the greenlight. "You can't put a live tiger in a boat with a child. It has elements of 'Castaway,' when the kid is alone in the boat. You don't need language to convey what's on the screen. We need to make the movie for the whole world."
That they did.