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Photo Credit: Peter Sorel

There were a lot of regrettable movie trends in the late 1990s, but I think my least favorite was the lazy screenwriter’s shortcut where characters sit around telling the story and explaining the themes under the misguided notion that it’s the only way to make period pieces “relevant” to modern audiences. Who can forget Gloria Stuart perpetually interrupting Titanic, those bickering kids in The Bridges of Madison County, or elderly Private Ryan’s visit to the cemetery? I know I’d like to. 

That unfortunate structural gambit comes back with a vengeance in Life Of Pi, Ang Lee’s visually rapturous yet stultifying adaptation of Yann Martel’s zillion-selling novel about a boy stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. Filmmakers from M. Night Shyamalan to Alfonso Cuarón have been circling this book for the past decade, all trying to crack Martel’s tricky mix of religion, allegory and wonder.

No one’s cracked it yet. 

Finding Neverland screenwriter David Magee settles on the banal choice of having Rafe Spall play “the Writer,” a blocked novelist having lunch with Irrfan Khan’s mysterious adult Pi, who offers to “tell a story that will make you believe in God.” It’s an awkward setup and almost entirely unnecessary as it leaves the audience with the queasy notion that Spall is only around because they needed to shoehorn a white guy into the movie.

We drone along through Pi’s childhood, in which he was raised in an actual zoo rendered by Lee in slightly heightened reminiscences. The young Hindu boy embraces Catholicism and Islam as well, an evolution seen in long-winded theological discussions that presumably play better on the page. Things finally pick up when Pi’s family boards a freighter headed to Canada with all their animals in the cargo hold.

The shipwreck itself is an extraordinary feat of filmmaking, employing CGI effects to grant the images a larger-than-life, storybook quality. The use of 3D is particularly adept, utilizing the technology to create the illusion of depth within the frame, rather than flinging a lot of stuff in our faces the way most directors do. The sheer vastness of the sea and oversized waves dwarf our teenage protagonist, who soon finds himself the only human survivor, adrift on a cramped lifeboat with sparse supplies and a handful of animals to keep him company. Since one of these animals happens to be a massive tiger named “Richard Parker,” you don’t have to know much about the food chain to figure out that pretty soon it’s going to be just the two of them.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma handles a difficult role quite well, holding the screen while acting opposite a costar created inside a hard drive. The film’s most compelling segments showcase the boy’s endless ingenuity as he finds nifty ways to survive under impossible conditions with a traveling companion who’d just as soon have him for lunch. It’s kind of like Cast Away, if Wilson had wanted to eat Tom Hanks.

There’s no shortage of eye candy during these passages, as Lee and cinematographer Claudio Miranda push the color palette into ever more painterly abstractions. A couple of puzzling aspect-ratio switches aside, Life of Pi is gorgeous to stare at, even when the iridescent algae looks a bit too much like a screensaver.

The problem is that the lyrical visuals are constantly undone by the screenplay’s dull literal-mindedness. Cuts from expansive vistas to two dudes sitting around in a living room are whiplash-inducing. And if, by any chance, you happen to have missed this story’s honkingly obvious metaphors, don’t worry because these guys explain everything you’re seeing in laborious detail.

Martel’s novel hinged on a gut-punch ending that asked some fascinating questions about storytelling as an act of faith. Lee and Magee dunderheadedly decide to just say everything out loud, with “the Writer” reciting subtext directly into the camera lens, and Khan’s adult Pi announcing the moral of the story and asking us all what we’ve learned. (I half expected him to assign essay questions as post-movie homework.) 

The first rule of filmmaking is show, don’t tell. Life of Pi shows and tells. You’ll wish you could watch with the sound turned off.

Life of Pi 
Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall, Tabu and Gérard Depardieu. Based on the novel by Yann Martel. Screenplay by David Magee. Directed by Ang Lee. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.