In the seven years since director Ang Lee stepped behind the camera for a major motion picture, digital 3D technology has gone from infancy to being as commonplace in movie theaters as Twizzlers.

In all that time, very few movies have showcased 3D quite like Lee’s latest, Life of Pi.

Based on the 2001 best-selling novel by Yann Martel, Pi incorporates 3D almost as a character in and of itself, providing mesmerizing visuals that otherwise would have left things feeling a little flat. The drama that’s inherent in a story of a teenager stranded in a lifeboat for eight months with a Bengal tiger is here, sure, but the emotional heft of the novel is largely lost at sea.

When a cargo ship carrying the Patel family and their zoo animals across the Pacific capsizes, young Pi (Suraj Sharma) is the only human survivor. A quartet of beasts also makes it, including an orangutan, hyena, zebra, and the tiger, named Richard Parker.

Eventually only the boy and tiger remain, and Life of Pi becomes a Cast Away-like story of survival. And a Perfect Storm-like story of the sea’s fury. And a mediation on religion and faith.

Bookended by a subplot about a modern day author (Rafe Spall) who is interviewing the now-grown Patel in hopes of later writing about the survivor story, Life of Pi is very faithful to the source material– in content, if not depth. Everything from Meerkat Island to the third-act alternative version of events is here, and screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland) does a rather amazing job of not short-shifting any major (or minor) plot points.

As often happens in book-to-movie adaptations, though, the motivation and inner dialogue that are crucial to the audience forming an emotional connection are the first casualties, and it’s here that Magee, admittedly given the difficult task of movie-ifying a novel widely considered unfilmable, falls short. Given the circumstances, though, he nearly pulls off the impossible.

Almost miraculously, Lee’s direction and the cinematography by Claudio Miranda (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) help pull together the story, especially knowing that most of the film was filmed in a tank and with green screens. Even the tiger is mostly CGI, though you’d be hard-pressed to tell.

Despite its (largely forgivable) shortfalls, Life of Pi is still captivating and visually magnificent, anchored by an excellent debut performance from Sharma. It’s a journey no one would want to take but one that is definitely worth seeing.

Note: Take the PG rating with a really big grain of salt. There are several very intense moments, including major storms, the sinking of the ship (and death of Pi’s family), and some pretty gnarly carnivorous animal action. I would say it’s inappropriate for anyone younger than, say, 12 or 13.

4/5 stars