Spiritualism in movies can be pretentious and overblown — think of the trailer for CLOUD ATLAS (and presumably the picture itself — I just couldn’t get it up to go) — keeping audiences away. Or spiritualism can stem from a tale told thrillingly and beautifully, its spiritual concerns clear and comprehensible — as is the case with this majestic adventure, deemed risky for Fox pre-release, but opening strong and destined, like Pi himself, for big things. A rumination on the many ways to enlightenment, a transmutation of unbearable reality into something easier to grasp, a solo (in a sense) acting exercise in which a newbie shines like a pro, and perhaps the most seamless use of CGI yet, this movie takes a highly evocative novel and finds the visual equivalents to illustrate its world, both literal and thematic. It’s structured much like Tom Hanks’ CAST AWAY — the set-up, the ocean ordeal, and a coda — but instead of Wilson, we get Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger who accompanies, hungers for, lives alongside, and ultimately abandons Pi. Unlike many films where you slog through the preliminaries to get to “the good stuff” and then look at your watch during the wrap-up, the framing device is the key to what this movie is really about: what we can learn from personal crisis, the absence of God, the presence of God, coping mechanisms and the uses of imagination. Some artists find variations on the same subject for each of their works; they don’t repeat, they find new facets every time they return to familiar material. Other artists, and director Ang Lee is one of them, astonish each time by taking on something entirely different from what they did before. Here, Lee’s utterly natural use of 3-D never goes for cheap effect and his storytelling is as lean and fat-free as Pi himself after weeks adrift. LIFE OF PI is a triumph. — Jeff Schultz

LIFE OF PI is one of the most visually striking movies I’ve ever seen. The scenery, the CGI animals, the cinematography and the 3D all combine for a completely unbelievable sensory experience. The rest of the movie is good, not great. The acting is decent and is generally overwhelmed by the feast for the eyes. The story is basically a tale about religion. It’s something of a dark fable about belief, what you believe and why you believe it. At the end it turns into a freshman year religious studies/philosophy class. The story is interesting and the best moments are the small moments of humor, but not as fascinating as what you’re looking at. It’s like great art. You can interpret it however you like, but a beautiful painting is a beautiful painting. It’s a feast for the eyes. And that’s reason enough to see LIFE OF PI. — Alan Yudman

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