The big idea: In the war between faith and chaos, chaos will eat you if you're not fully faithed up. And then it might eat you anyway.
The little idea: There's no room in a gigantic Hollywood movie for a little idea. Sorry.
Life of Pi is large. It's a big spectacle with a big message and it expects you to open up wide and swallow the ocean in order to get it. And if you can't do that then it's a movie that also thought of a way to swallow itself for you, with a clunky, overstated, embarrassing framing device that hedges the spectacle's bets. That frame involves Pi (Irrfan Khan), an Indian man living in Canada, telling a story about his own faith in The Higher Power (Pi is Christian, Muslim and Hindu, all at once, long story) to a writer (Rafe Spall, standing in for Life of Pi's spiritual novelist Yann Martel). As a teenager, Pi's (played by Suraj Sharma) family sets sail from India to Canada on a boat full of zoo animals. When the ship sinks in a storm, Pi is the sole human survivor, sharing a boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (another, slightly less long story), a zebra, a hyena and an orangutan. One by one Richard Parker devours his fellow animals and for his next meal....
What follows is a story of survival, magical realism and mystical arm-twisting, meant to move those inclined to do so with repeated pleas for surrender to whatever god you like best. Those pleas come in the form of scenes that yank you out of the churning, hypnotic ocean and back into a small house where middle-aged Pi hammers home the point that God is everywhere and you have no choice but to see that right in front of you because of, you know, tigers that eventually didn't eat him. It's a lot of telling, interrupting a lot of showing.
But what you really surrender to is the showing. Director Ang Lee's team, including cinematographer Claudio Miranda and the best digital effects and 3D-making crew money could buy, have created a film of wondrous visual beauty that has to be experienced with the special glasses on a big screen. This isn't something you wait for on DVD. And when it wisely bugs out of that boring living room Sunday School lesson and back to the ocean, with its gloriously glowing jellyfish, leaping whales and competing threats of hopelessness and impending death by drowning, starvation or becoming a tiger's breakfast, you see how faith could manifest itself in the middle of terrifying impossibility.
I'm going to assume that the literary jumping-off point for this passionate evangelical mission must have spun the possibility with more grace and delicacy, but here it's a honking bratty trumpet in your ears, something to maneuver around until more gorgeously infinite ocean and sky and adjacent real-life terror leap back into the picture to communicate everything without a word. If only the movie could shut itself up a little bit more often, we in the audience might have had a chance to come to those conclusions all by ourselves.