Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his feline traveling companion Richard Parker survey the emptiness of the ocean in “Life of Pi.” The movie is about an Indian teenager who survives a shipwreck and must live for weeks alone on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger.

20th Century Fox

Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) and his feline traveling companion Richard Parker survey the emptiness of the ocean in “Life of Pi.” The movie is about an Indian teenager who survives a shipwreck and must live for weeks alone on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger.

Andy Bockelman: ‘Life of Pi’ a complex coming-of-age tale on the high seas

Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

“Life of Pi”

Rating: 3.14 out of 4 stars

Run time: 127 minutes

Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall and Tabu.

Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.

The quiet despair that overwhelmed us in “Cast Away” is a difficult trait to capture considering most movies require a back-and-forth to keep the action afloat. But only being able to converse with a volleyball certainly isn’t the worst part of a bad situation.

If you had to live within the details of “Life of Pi,” you’d probably prefer Wilson to certain other shipmates.

Growing up around a zoo of exotic animals run by his family is all Pondicherry, India-native Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma) has ever known. It’s a life the wide-eyed teenager loves, leaving him crushed when his parents (Tabu, Adil Hussain) are forced to sell their menagerie and emigrate to Canada.

Aboard a cargo ship traversing the Pacific, Pi’s life is further turned upside down when the freighter is wrecked amid a storm, and he is the lone survivor. The only human survivor, that is, with animals clustered with him in a tiny lifeboat.

Even at sea, the food chain is ever present, and every beast on board is at the mercy of a full-grown Bengal tiger until only the boy and the feline remain. With limited supplies and a hungry predator eying him at all times, Pi is left to figure out a way to keep the two of them alive until they can reach land, providing the ocean doesn’t overtake them or they don’t kill each other first.

Novice actor Sharma certainly makes a splash as the principled and resourceful kid named after a French swimming pool and nicknamed for a geometrical concept. Ultimately, anybody can star in a story of survival, but what makes or breaks any such character is in what motivates them to stay alive — in this case, Pi’s staunch belief in a higher power as a devout follower of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

This comes through absolutely in Sharma’s range of facial expressions from euphoria to hopelessness as Pi goes through day after day, week after week barely clinging to life. Every triumph usually amounts to one step forward and two steps back thanks to the complications presented by his traveling companion, known as Richard Parker because of a clerical error with zoo paperwork. Seeing this meek, young man step up and assert himself to a seasick kitty who’s got a short fuse is quite the sight but no more so than when they start to gain each other’s respect and share their miniscule living quarters.

Framed in retrospect as an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) chronicles his journey to a disbelieving writer (Rafe Spall), we know at least half of the duo will make it to dry land alive, but the fact we care about Richard Parker as much as we fear him at first shows how powerful the tale is from all angles. The direction by Ang Lee lets us see — with phenomenal 3-D — the unforgiving and beautiful sides of nature and life in general as seen through the eyes of a sheltered teen and a tiger raised in captivity.

Often, the details of their voyage dip into pure fantasy, an element with which Lee has some fun without drowning in sentimentalism, but whether it’s the heat of the baking sun, the odor of rotting fish carcasses or the godsend of clean drinking water, the director finds some way to reel it in when Pi’s imagination gets the best of him and rarely makes the movie feel like anything than less than 100 percent real. Given the uphill battle involved in getting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel adapted and into the early stages of production, that achievement is twofold.

Filled with depth, good humor and life lessons, “Life of Pi” is consistently riveting as we follow an unlikely pair adrift at sea. Whether you place your trust in down-to-earth determination to endure hardships, faith that divine intervention will save lost souls or a combination of the two, you can’t help but feel uplifted as the story comes full circle.

Just excuse the obligatory math joke.

Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.

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