1. Life of Pi is about 65 minutes of staggering cinematic beauty surrounded by 55 minutes of touchy-feely New Age claptrap. You recognize the kind, with its choose-your-own-adventure brand of spirituality, and God as captain of the ship sailing everyone's personal journey for self-fulfillment and understanding. At its center the movie is so lushly rendered, so hypnotic, that you wish that's all there were. You wish it just told the story of a kid and a boat and a tiger. That would be moving enough. It's the rest of the movie that gets in the way.
2. The story of what happens to young Pi before and after his little boat sojourn isn't nearly as interesting as the movie wants it to be. He's raised in India by a father who owns a zoo, and when the family takes a boat to move to Canada, the boat sinks, killing everyone on board but Pi, an orangutan, a zebra and a Bengal tiger. This is whittled down to Pi and the tiger right quick. The central story is simply one of survival, as Pi tries to figure out how to make it in the ocean without, you know, being eaten by the tiger. It almost sounds like a logic problem in a parable—how do you make it across the water with the scorpion and the snake? Pi's resourcefulness is riveting and relatable, and the viewer understands why the movie never even takes the time for him to mourn the death of his entire family. Cry too much, and the tiger will eat you.
3. Director Ang Lee knows his selling point is this story on the boat, and he makes sure you get your money's worth. The ocean of Life of Pi is a magical but terrifying place: Lee wows you with visuals while reminding you that sharks are constantly circling. He's clearly thought through the 3-D, and it's vividly realized here: There are whole swaths of the movie that are just silent reveries. From the violent migration of tiny fish to an overpowering out-of-nowhere storm to a sudden appearance of a whale that is both awe-inspiring and a serious threat to one's survival, the scenes with Pi on the boat are as good as anything we've seen in 3-D. They are all-encompassing and absorbing. In a perfect world, this would just be a 65-minute movie about Pi and his boat and his tiger.
4. It isn't, though: This is a movie that has to move you artificially. Thus we get an older Pi, telling his story to a writer/narrative device, making sure there is some larger lesson about humanity and God and vegetarianism and whatever else you want to throw into the spiritual cocktail. The scenes with Pi and the boat are full of things you've never seen before. The scenes with Pi telling his story, and putting it in context, are depressingly like so many you have seen so many times. Every time older Pi shows up, butting into the tiger story, you find yourself sighing: Get out of here, old man. We'll draw our own conclusions about this story, if you don't mind.
5. It really doesn't help that, as the movie draws to a close, we receive a piece of information that calls into question everything we've seen or experienced, some reverse M. Night Shyamalan business. Maybe it makes sense in the book, but it's a near-disaster here; the movie is already so pie-in-the-sky New Age, so dreamy rather than grounded in the raw details of survival, that a "twist" of this sort inspires less "it just makes you think, you know?" and more "oh, screw off." The framing device is already in the way, and when it threatens to overwhelm the one part of the movie that's great, you want to wring its crystal-beady neck. My recommendation: Tune out almost any scene in Life of Pi when one character is telling a story, or pontificating about God, or talking to any other who is not a tiger, a zebra or an orangutan. Maybe even mute them. Then lie back and just take all the boat scenes in. This movie is to be seen and experienced. It is not to be heard.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.