Ang Lee fully deserves his Oscar win for successfully bringing this seemingly unfilmable project to screen, but the end result gets by more on its lush imagery than its story. The film is a laundry list of items directors like to avoid: filming on water, working with animals, using an untrained lead actor, and extensive blue screen post-production. The fact that Lee drove the difficult project to fruition over its four-year gestation is highly commendable, but when that's the key selling point it's clear there's a problem with the source material. The film is largely an exercise in futility; a lyrical, visual delight to be sure, but also strangely unaffecting as a whole.
You already know the story: an Indian boy and a tiger trapped together at sea. Unfortunately, there's really not much more to it than that. The film's screenwriter tries to wrap it in a framing device to give it added meaning as the adult Pi recounts his unbelievable tale to a goofy young author looking for inspiration, but that author is such a dunce that he doesn't seem worthy of the inspiration or our attention. What we're left with is Pi and his unlikely traveling companion, Richard Parker the tiger.
The story opens in India and shows young Piscine battling adversity at school due to his unfortunate name. After shortening his moniker to Pi, clashing with his father, and making his initial foolhardy attempt to bond with the tiger they own for their zoo, the family and their menagerie set sail for Canada. The ship runs afoul of a horrendous storm, Pi and Richard end up on the same lifeboat as sole survivors, then float aimlessly for the better part of a year as they try to stay alive without eating each other.
The film tries to get some inspirational mileage out of Pi battling the elements and the ever-present hungry predator, but its plot is really just the same "castaway at sea" tale we've seen many times before with a stripey antagonist thrown in the mix. By the time the mismatched travelling companions reach a carnivorous island teeming with meerkats, we're floating into uncharted trippy waters that leave us and the author increasingly wondering if adult Pi is having a laugh at our expense or if he actually believes his own incredibly tall tale.
As mentioned previously, the film is a visual masterpiece, making Blu-ray the mandatory choice for presentation. Color range is astounding, and there is no noticeable artifacting, not even in the busiest action scenes. The film was shot in 3D, but even in 2D you can get a great grasp of the intended depth of field thanks to the perfection of the Blu mastering. There is one caveat though: all that hi-def precision makes it easier to see the seams in the CG work, especially regarding the tiger, which ended up pulling me out of the film as I continually focused on which scenes were real and which were fake.
Bonus features are headlined by an exhaustive and self-congratulatory hour-long documentary about the making of the film, featuring interviews with the key players and footage filmed during the lengthy scouting, casting, and production processes. There's also a 20-minute look at the extensive CG effects created for the film, as well as a 10-minute spotlight exclusively on creation and use of the CG tiger.