Watching the amazing "Life of Pi," one often wonders "How are they doing that?"
This question does not arise often these days. We have seen so many behind-the-scenes, making-of segments that it's easy to envision a room full of computer-graphics artists hunched at terminals, or those motion-capture body suits with the little balls attached.
There is not much room left to wonder, or for wonder.
But "Life of Pi," opening Wednesday , creates and sustains wonder. It does this through its logic-defyingly-lifelike Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, its sea-life fluorescent light shows and its remarkable underwater shots, camera pointed skyward, that immerse the viewer in water and clouds.
There are explanations for how director Ang Lee and his visual team achieved the marvels of "Life of Pi," the majority of which involves a young man, a tiger, a lifeboat and open water.
Or at least there are the nuts and bolts, like computer-generated imagery, real tigers serving as models for effects artists, and a giant water tank, built for the film, that generated its own waves.
But as the film's title character, an Indian zoo owner's son who draws from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam to forge a personal belief system, might tell us, it's better to simply show faith and not analyze things too closely.
There are too many intangibles. Like the movie magic that springs from a great director who constantly challenges himself.
"Life of Pi" establishes Lee as the today's most versatile director working on a large scale. The Taiwanese director who brought sensitivity to late 18th century England and Jane Austen in "Sense and Sensibility" also ably chronicled 1970s American suburban restlessness in "The Ice Storm." The same guy who showcased thrilling martial-arts wire work in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" took risks in a new way with "Brokeback Mountain," for which he was awarded the best-director Oscar.
(We will ignore Lee's "Hulk." Everyone gets one of those).
With "Life of Pi," Lee enters James Cameron and "Avatar" levels of visual wizardry. Except Lee uses 3-D more judiciously, to enrich a seascape or heighten the sense of panic during a shipwreck that separates Pi and Richard Parker from Pi's family. The family and its zoo animals had been traveling by cargo ship toward a new home in Canada.
Lee also starts with better material. "Life of Pi" is drawn from Yann Martel's 2001 best-seller of the same name, and David Magee's screenplay wonderfully translates the book's ever- curious, philosophical hero to the big screen.
Teenage acting newcomer Suraj Sharma, discovered through a casting call in India, gives Pi an earnestness and toughness that ground this elaborate story.
Sharma maintains character consistency despite the role's physical demands. Pi spends much of the film on or near a lifeboat, responding to fierce ocean and weather conditions and the more peculiar condition of sharing a boat with a tiger.
Pi must learn to fish to feed himself and the animal and to establish reasonable living arrangements with Richard Parker, a character more expressive than most human movie characters.
For anyone who grew attached to Wilson, the volleyball in "Cast Away," Richard Parker is Wilson times 100 in terms of emotional pull. That's because Richard Parker is so clearly engaged in his own struggles to stay afloat.
He lunges and tears apart prey but also gets seasick and shows other vulnerabilities. Through it all, he remains a highly believable, non-Tony tiger.
LIFE OF PI
★ ★ ★ ★
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Ayush Tandon, Tabu, Gérard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Rated PG (emotional thematic content throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril)