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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)

Oh, the 3-D wonders to behold in Ang Lee's staggeringly gorgeous "Life of Pi."

A school of flying fish catapults through the air with the velocity of bullets. A majestic whale breathtakingly leaps from a placid sea, turning the waters treacherous. A crouching Bengal tiger stares piercingly into our eyes, then lets loose a bloodcurdling roar.

Virtually every scene in Lee's mostly successful adaptation of Yann Martel's 2001 award-winning, best-selling novel -- about a 16-year-old boy nicknamed Pi adrift at sea for 227 days with a surly tiger -- is awe-inspiring and beautiful.

But as lavish and startling as that imagery and those sensations are, "Pi" has rocky moments, too. One of its central narrative structures comes across as clumsy and artificial, and the overall pace is languid, even slow. But since this is this is a technical marvel of epic proportions, those are minor misgivings. "Pi" might not be perfect, but you have to see it to believe it.

It's no surprise the visual banquet comes from the Oscar-winning Lee. The director's resume is rife with contemplative fare that he poetically and sensitively has brought to life -- from the colorful tapestry he embroidered in the sensual and tragic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to the stark, repressed emotional and physical terrain his characters navigated in "Brokeback Mountain."

With "Life of Pi," Lee outdoes himself visually, without a doubt setting a new standard for 3-D, a technology Hollywood has mostly abused with crass recklessness. In "Pi," the special effects are seamlessly woven into Martel's densely allegorical fabric, a story wrangled on-screen by screenwriter David Magee ("Neverland").

Lee has taken on material that -- much like David Mitchell's ingenious and audacious "Cloud Atlas" -- had been considered unfilmable. Since the bulk of the story involves a teen and a tiger perilously stuck on a boat, it's a tough feat to pull off on film.

To successfully transfer "Pi" to the big screen, landmark state-of-the-art CGI effects were essential, with 3-D as an added stimulant. Here, the 3-D enhances rather than distracts. That's exactly how 3-D should be used, deployed not just because it looks cool.

On face value, the swirl of effects gussies up a relatively simple plot about the ordeal Piscine Molitor Patel (impressive newcomer Suraj Sharma) endures at sea with a tiger named Richard Parker. Pi -- as he's nicknamed -- is a curious and young religious explorer who becomes caught in the unenviable position in the Pacific when the ship he's traveling on with his parents is wrecked.

We realize immediately that Pi survives his ordeal, since an older version of himself (Bollywood star Irrfan Khan) provides narration. The older Pi is now living in Canada and, as in the book, he imparts his inspiring story to a writer (Rafe Spall) dealing with writer's block. It is in these vital sequences between scribe and teller, that "Pi" and Lee stumble.

While this narrative conceit is integral to the theme of Martel's work -- about how stories and faith can be life preservers we cling to in order to survive -- it comes across on-screen as stilted and stagey. The result is a more muted finale that doesn't have the powerful emotional punch it should.

The rest of the film is more alive and elemental, including in the way Lee colorfully illustrates Pi's entrancing youthful days in Pondicherry, India, where his dad runs a zoo. Lee also creates a gripping shipwreck, but the main attractions are those days and nights Pi spends with Richard Parker -- a remarkable creation.

It is in those moments where Lee is completely in sync with the material. But you'll have to see for yourself. And make sure that's not at home on DVD but seated in a theater wearing 3-D glasses with the willingness to surrender to Lee's deliberately paced yet luminous and magical journey.

You can contact Randy Myers at rmyers@bayareanewsgroup.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/soitsrandy and at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.RandyMyers.

Life of Pi

* * * ½

Rating: PG (for emotional thematic contact throughout, and some scary action sequences and peril)
Cast: Suraj Sherma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, Gerard Depardieu
Director: Ang Lee
Running time:
2 hours, 7 minutes



You can contact Randy Myers at rmyers@bayareanewsgroup.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/soitsrandy and at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.RandyMyers.