In the end, Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi poses the same question as the novel upon which it’s based: Can storytelling convince someone to believe in God? (Set aside the obvious fact that it’s the only thing that ever has.) Lee inflates Yann Martel’s best-selling allegorical adventure yarn into an often stunning 3-D epic that thrusts gauzy New Age syllogisms and lavish writerly conceits directly into the viewer’s lap.
The film was conceived for 3-D and the results can be breathtaking: the lifeboat floating on a placid, cloud-reflecting ocean that makes it appear to be airborne, the teeming swirl of bioluminescent sea creatures. But Lee never makes the case for the format as essential to artistic expression, as he seems to argue for, so much as just a grander-than-usual spectacle, a particularly impressive fireworks show. Sure, a sudden rush of flying fish has greater relevance to a lost-at-sea tale than the thwacking of a paddleball has to the story of a diabolical wax museum, but the difference is ultimately one of scale, not meaning.
Lee’s films tend to stand or fall based on their balance between sumptuous visuals and weighty ideas; the reach for profundity here occasionally results in sluggish pacing and awkward performances, but the one-size-fits-all spirituality is frothy enough not to overburden the thrill of tiger attacks and man-eating islands.