If there remains any doubt that you can make a great film out of a great book, "Life of Pi" will put it to rest.
Films like "Pride and Prejudice," "Holes" and "Hunger Games" made it seem do-able; "Life of Pi" makes it downright miraculous.
Ang Lee's masterpiece captures the adventure, heartbreak and lofty metaphysics of Yann Martel's modern classic - while adding some of the most dazzling visuals in cinematic history.
Yes, my reviews are prone to overstatement - but it's hard to speak highly enough about the framing, photography, lighting and effects in this tale of a boy marooned on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
If you haven't read the book, that plotline sounds ridiculous; but Martel fans know that he makes his tale shudderingly believable. What Martel did with research and language, Lee has managed with computers, animatronics and live beasts.
The mix of real and artificial footage is so seamless that, as with a splendid magic trick, I'd rather not know how they did it.
And it isn't just the tiger. Or the flying fish. Or the shipwreck. Or the whale. There's an enchanting late-film sequence I won't give away (let's just say it has algae and meerkats) - but I wasn't sure any film could do justice to Martel's vision.
Lee's movie does - and then some.
Dozens of frames here look like paintings - and they alone are worth the admission price. But "Life of Pi" offers much, much more.
It's a blazingly suspenseful adventure yarn; it's an examination of religious faith and story-telling (young Pi's seagoing tale is narrated, framework-style, by the older Pi, while an eager young writer listens in amazement).
Irrfan Khan ("Slumdog Millionaire," "Amazing Spiderman") is excellent as the older Pi; he's one of those actors you recognize but can't name - though that won't be the case for long.
And young Suraj Sharma, who has never acted before, is a revelation as the 16-year-old hero.
I'd like to credit the tiger as well, but most of that was apparently done with animation - so kudos to effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team. With the possible exception of next month's "Hobbit," I don't see how anyone can beat them to this year's Oscar.
"Pi" also features a charming world-music score; but one of its most singular achievements is the way it moderates Martel's extraordinary gore and violence.
Filmed as written, "Pi" would've had a tough time getting down to an R rating. Lee and crew manage PG - without substantially abandoning the story's brutality. It's not terribly bloody, but it's no film for kids.
As for metaphysics: While it's supposed to be "a story to make you believe in God," "Pi" is just as likely to have the opposite effect. Regular readers know that religious faith is important to me - but even though I'm a little uneasy with "Pi's" final message, I'm still awarding it top marks.
I think it's the front-runner for Best Picture.
**** stars out of four
The film is rated PG for animal violence and fairly frequent fear and distress.
"Lincoln," ***1/2 - Daniel Day-Lewis just might become the first man ever to grab a third statue for Best Actor. The renowned performer, who already won for "My Left Foot" and "There Will Be Blood," accepted this role on one condition: a full year to prepare. During that time, he read more than 100 books on the subject - while working tirelessly with the makeup artist to perfect Lincoln's look. The results are spectacular.
"Skyfall," ***1/2 - "Skyfall" is loaded with nail-biting action, plus plenty of the sardonic humor that was all but absent in recent Bond outings. Yet it's also a film of ideas; and to top it off, "Skyfall" is the most beautifully photographed Bond movie ever.
"Flight," ****1/2 - At some points, you may want to give up on this film, sensing the hopeless despair found in other tales about alcoholics; but stick with it. Writer John Gatins, himself a recovering drinker, knows exactly where he's going, and the ending of this aptly titled "Flight" could hardly be better.