Newcomer Suraj Sharma stars as Pi who, growing up in what's apparently India's first CGI zoo, learns at a young age to be wary of the zoo's star attraction: a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. That is, until their cross-Atlantic freighter is shipwrecked, leaving Pi and Richard Parker as the sole survivors, and forcing them to learn to coexist sharing a tiny lifeboat.
So will "Life of Pi" sink or swim this awards season? I've broken down its chances below, complete with the latest odds from the Oscar prognosticators at Gold Derby.
Best Actor: An acting novice who attended the audition on a whim, Sharma was picked from a pool of about 3,000 hopefuls to play the titular Pi. And for a non-professional, the Indian teen's range is seriously impressive. Especially considering he has to shoulder most of the movie alone, since his most frequent co-stars were a CGI tiger and a green screen. That alone could earn Sharma a nomination, but with Daniel Day-Lewis quickly becoming the male Meryl Streep, he'd be a serious underdog.
Odds: 100-1, or still better than Sharma's initial odds of winning the job.
Best Supporting Actor: Hey, if "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" could generate Oscar buzz for a CGI ape, why not a CGI tiger? Much of the soul-searching "Life of Pi" revolves around our tendency to humanize wild animals, and there's certainly a lot of depth in Richard Parker's eyes. (Or maybe that's just the 3D.) But with three real Bengal tigers behind Parker's performance instead of Andy Serkis, the movie's only hope here is that voters get confused by Richard Parker's name. No matter how much the Academy loves method acting.
Odds: 1,000,000-1, or the odds of surviving on a lifeboat with a tiger for 227 days.
Best Visual Effects: Who would've thought philosophical Oscar bait would put a whole roster of summer blockbusters to shame? After all, it only features a handful of explosions and zero talking robots. But everything from the movie's seemingly-endless ocean to its four-legged star is a serious special effects marvel. And while 3D might seem an odd choice for a project like this, Lee expertly uses the added dimension to enhance the story's visual power. Of course, a 450-pound tiger still pounces off the screen and flying fish threaten to smack you in the face. But the "Avatar" comparisons certainly seem warranted as Lee creates a CGI world that's no less fantastical, even if it features a giant cat as opposed to giant cat-people.
Odds: 2-1, or as close to a sure bet as you'll get this year.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Between this year's "Life of Pi" and "Cloud Atlas," people really need to rethink what they consider an "unfilmable" novel. With "Pi," the unfilmable rep was mainly due to the technical challenges involved with wrangling both a tiger and an open ocean. Still, the script's structure is clunky, with the present-day Pi (Irrfan Khan) narrating his story to a rapt Martel stand-in (Rafe Spall, in a part once destined for Tobey Maguire). It's an inelegant solution, particularly when Pi's grand tale is wrapping up. If Lee doesn't seem to have a hard time making the story of a kid and a tiger alone on a boat cinematic, why does the script?
Odds: 14-1, or significantly better than the odds this adaptation would ever pan out.
Best Director: Of all the names that swirled around "Life of Pi" over the years - everyone from Alfonso Cuaron to M. Night Shyamalan circled the high-profile project at one point - landing Ang Lee was the best thing that could've happened to the blockbuster adaptation. Shooting in 3D was a risk (creatively, if not commercially), but one that paid off, as "Pi" is packed with some genuinely breathtaking shots, and allowed Lee to tell an intimate story on an epic scale. That may not earn Lee a second Oscar, but another nomination seems all but guaranteed.
Odds: 14-1, or much lower than the odds you would've ever heard "Ang Lee" and "3D" in the same sentence.
Best Picture: With its gorgeous visuals and sometimes clunky script, that "Avatar" comparison is an apt one, though probably not in the way it was intended. Similarly, "Life of Pi" faces some serious competition for Best Picture, not the least of which comes from "Avatar"-killer Kathryn Bigelow and her follow-up "Zero Dark Thirty."
At the beginning of "Life of Pi," an older, wiser Pi purports to have a story so good, he claims it'll make you believe in God. And while Ang Lee's 3D epic likely won't go that far, it's still got a shot at making true believers out of Oscar voters.
Odds: 10-1, or much better than the odds of the movie successfully converting you.