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‘Life of Pi’ makes big strides in 3-D storytelling

Charles Ealy

Ang Lee is going to surprise everyone this Thanksgiving. With “Life of Pi,” he’s setting a new standard for 3-D filmmaking that surpasses James Cameron’s “Avatar” of 2009.

“Life of Pi,” which opens Wednesday, is an unusual move for Lee, whose eclectic body of work includes “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Ice Storm,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

But Lee sees it as a logical career trajectory. “I would like to think I have a lot to learn about different ways of making movies, touching different genres and subject matters, with different actors,” Lee says in a telephone interview. “That’s how I live my life and learn about the world and myself.”

“Life of Pi,” based on what many deemed the unfilmable 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel by Yann Martel, opens with zoo animals roaming free, with a bear clutching a tree and a hummingbird seemingly fluttering into the audience.

Lee says he tried to set the stage for the entire movie with his visual Garden of Eden-like zoo at the beginning. “The zoo is the paradise of Pi, where innocence happens. It’s happy, comforting … something you can trust,” he says. “But then we go through the process of loss,” and life’s troubles intrude.

Lee is speaking about the tragedies that beset a precocious Indian boy named Piscene Molitor Martel, who’s embarrassed that he’s named after a French swimming pool and simply wants to be called Pi. He lives with his mother, father and brother in an idyllic zoo in Pondicherry. Pi seems open to all things, especially religions, and he considers himself a Catholic Hindu Muslim. He’s also in awe of the zoo’s ferocious Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker.

The trouble begins when Pi’s father decides to move the family — and all of the zoo creatures — to Canada via a Pacific freighter. And the freighter’s sinking during a typhoon is one of the most ambitious set pieces since Cameron’s “Titanic”: It includes a ship full of wild animals trying to flee the rising water. And the force of the typhoon is vividly represented.

“The first day we started work on that sequence was Day 2, and the last sequence was shot on Day 78,” Lee says. “We spent a lot of time with that, dealing with water and 3-D. I wanted to show the terror of a storm, a typhoon. I wanted to give a taste of God’s humbling power. And in the end, when the boy has lost everything, I wanted to bring emotion to the front, to visualize the turmoil, the loss and anger.”

That turmoil is visually represented by a gnarling, vicious hyena that improbably ends up with Pi on a lifeboat, along with a wounded zebra, an orangutan and the biggest surprise survivor of all, the Bengal tiger Richard Parker. All of the animals are rendered realistically and believably through digital and motion-capture technologies, but the greatest achievement has to be reserved for the tiger, which commands our attention throughout the film.

Before long, only two survive — the tiger and Pi. And their uneasy relationship forms the basis for most of the movie. To get safely away from the tiger, Pi builds a raft and ties it alongside the boat, but the raft is rickety. As Pi screams to God for answers, more storms rock the vessel. And then there’s an attack by flying fish — yet another set piece that will wow audiences.

But at other times, Pi seems to be suspended in a glorious sea, where winkling jellyfish and marine life mimic the twinkling of the stars. It’s gorgeous cinematography, and it’s bound to bring an Oscar nomination for Claudio Miranda, who was a nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

The duality of nature’s wrath and its glory gets to the heart of “Life of Pi.” It’s not just about advancing 3-D technology, although that’s going to get a lot of media focus in the opening days. It’s primarily about storytelling and faith. “I think it exams faith and illusions,” Lee says. “It’s about sharing stories, and I share stories by making movies.”

Lee says he thinks Pi “has a firm belief that illusions, fantasies and stories really mean something, that it’s where the truth is hiding.”

And that’s also the basis for the movie’s spirituality, which Lee says reaffirms a belief in things that aren’t provable.

“I hope we present a believable and impressive story, and that people will believe in the storytelling and moviemaking and the grand illusions,” he says. “The essence is the value of imagination. That’s what gives us hope. I think that probably sums it up.”