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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Life of Pi' an action flick at heart with stunning 3-D

Life Of Pi

(PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

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This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel in a scene from "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Peter Sorel)

Despite all of its art-house trappings and intellectual, navel-gazing platitudes, "Life of Pi" is at its heart more of an action/adventure blast than plodding meaning-of-life sermon. It helps greatly that the film is bolstered by some of the finest 3-D ever seen and will likely provide equal points of interest for the eggheads, geeks and, yes, families with children.

Based on the deceptively simple best-selling 2001 novel by Yann Martel, director Ang Lee's adaptation has already been lauded by many of the book's fans as being remarkably close to the source material and, after reading the synopses of both (something you should not do before seeing the film), I can say they were right.

"Life of Pi" is Lee's 13th feature and follows the path he's walked for the entirety of his career. Known mostly as the guy behind "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and winning the Oscar for directing "Brokeback Mountain," Lee also made the corset drama period piece "Sense and Sensibility," the '70s-era downer "The Ice Storm" and comic-book flop "The Hulk." Lee is a guy not content with repeating himself and appears to be on a mission to work within every possible genre before he's done. Don't be surprised if he tries a slapstick comedy before calling it a day.

This is a movie that transcends every possible demographic expectation while staying true to its mission. In a manner not far removed from that of "Avatar," it sports a mostly no-name cast and uses technology to enhance and propel the story instead of the other way around. It's complex yet basic and visually mesmerizing without being flashy or gaudy. If it is guilty of anything, it would be a making a promise at the start no movie could ever deliver under any circumstances.

While growing up in India, Picine (played by four actors) suffers from childhood taunting over his name (which he quickly shortens to "Pi") but enjoys being part of a family of animal lovers that operate a zoo. Because of various factors -- the biggest being an economic downturn -- Pi's father decides to relocate to Canada and hires a Japanese shipper to transport his family and their "ark" of wildlife to their new home.

Being a teen in love that must leave his girlfriend behind, Pi is less than enthused over the move and, like many a lovelorn boy before him, rebels -- but not in the way we might expect. He gripes a bit but not too much but does behave as if bulletproof when a wicked storm brews up at sea. Before he knows it, Pi finds himself on a lifeboat and the only human survivor of the storm.

On the boat with Pi is a passive orangutan, a vicious hyena, a docile, wounded zebra and a carnivorous Bengal tiger that was mistakenly given the name Richard Parker years ago. Vastly unprepared to fend for himself initially, Pi does what we all would hopefully do under the same circumstances: he freaks out a little but keeps his head and eventually finds ways to stay alive.

The boat sequence takes up 80 or so minutes of the film's two-hour running time and the only problem with it is that it doesn't last longer. Stuck in a "Cast Away"-like situation is something neither audiences nor filmmakers relish, but Lee and Pi (Suraj Sarma) hypnotize and galvanize us with their craftiness and pluck. We desperately want him to survive. Oddly enough, we also want Richard Parker to make it through the ordeal, even though he regularly views Pi as lunch.

Although the opening 20 minutes and closing epilogue contain their narrative strong points, they collectively pale in comparison to the boat portion. So much takes place during this time that relates to us on so many levels that the rest seems almost superfluous. Again, Lee and screenwriter David Magee never stray at all from the novel, but the ending might pose some questions that could -- maybe, possibly -- give the viewer cause to doubt and question what they just witnessed.

On the other hand, the ending fits in perfectly with the metaphysical nature of the story as a whole while offering up an entirely different, albeit believable perspective. In the end, it offers viewers the opportunity to come to their own conclusions. It doesn't spell everything out. Some will love that, some will hate it. However, it is highly unlikely that anyone who watches it will walk away from "Life of Pi" without feeling transformed in some form or fashion. (Fox)