In his gently astonishing new film, Life of Pi, adapted from Yann Martel's 2001 bestseller, director Ang Lee melds so many disparate elements – Aesopian fable and cutting-edge 3D technology, east and west, young and old – that he may have just succeeded in rebranding himself as the Obama of world cinema. The fiercely urgent candidate of 2008, of course, not the stealth version currently working the stump.
The sheer number of world religions given a shout-out in the film – Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist – is enough to send Donald Trump's comb-over scampering up the nearest tree trunk, looking for cover.
The film takes a while to get going, like someone roused from their morning meditation, with lots of flowers and candles and people wearing kindly, fixed smiles suggesting enlightenment, or as if they had been hit around the head with a brass pot.
In French India, the young son of a zoo owner collects world religions the way other kids collect stamps. "They were my superheroes," he says, checking off a list of deities. Such good karma, sad to say, doesn't necessarily make for good drama. You're almost grateful for the arrival of the storm that sinks the boat bearing Pi, his family and their animal entourage to the new world, leaving the boy alone on a boat with one of his father's tigers. They are soon pacing around one other with the same mixture of wariness and hungriness last seen on the faces of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in Lee's 2005 Brokeback Mountain.
One of the things that tells you the director is in his prime – a model of creative evolution – is that his films feel like total surprises when first announced but fit snugly into his oeuvre once you've seen them. Immersing himself in the latest technology — 3D, digital paintboxes, motion capture and control – as Martin Scorsese did in last year's Hugo, Lee summons delights with his fingertips. But where Hugo was cold to the touch, Life of Pi feels warm-blooded, the perfect summation of the principle powering Lee's entire career: still waters run deep. You see it both in the Zen minimalism of his compositions – check out the shots of sky reflected in a glassy ocean, the boat suspended in the middle as if hanging in thin air – and the sonar-like skill with which he sounds out the emotional depths of Martel's tale. Lee's pixels are animated by empathy.
Life of Pi feels so simple, yet knotted with resonance, that you wonder why Lee bothered with the framing narrative in which a grown-up Pi chews over the spiritual implications of his tale with a writer in Toronto. For one thing, the argument they come up with for the existence of God turns out to bear a suspicious similarity to an argument for the all-round grooviness of magic realism. For another: Toronto. A nice city, but its neat patches of parkland and grey high-rises are no match for breaching whales, phosphorescent fish and crouching tigers, or the sight if Pi, howling like Job into stormy skies.
Hollywood has been waiting for this movie. Get ready for the year of the Tiger.