The movie's director, Ang Lee, hit the red carpet at the big-budget movie's world premiere, with the black-tie audience getting the first glimpse of the spiritual story of a boy stranded on a boat with a tiger. It kicked off the screenings of more than 160 films over 17 days at the New York festival.
One of the world's most respected movie showcases, the festival typically emphasizes the art of cinema by focusing on the best films from the year's European festivals rather than Hollywood-style premieres. But the event is still seen as an important step in gathering buzz as Hollywood's awards season gets going.
More splashy world premieres than usual are on this year's schedule, including "Sopranos" maker David Chase's film feature debut, "Not Fade Away" and Robert Zemeckis' first live-action film "Flight," starring Denzel Washington, which will close the festival.
"Life of Pi" uses computer-generated imagery to bring a cinematic feel to the tale of a Hindu boy who survives a shipwreck and gets stranded on a lifeboat for 227 days with a spotted hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
It is director Lee's riskiest film to date, even after 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," for which he won the best director Oscar. That film generated controversy for breaking barriers about gay portrayals on screen.
The 57-year-old Taiwanese born-director told the premiere on Friday night the film took four years to make and he joked about learning the hard way the difficulties of making a film in 3D predominantly set in the middle of the ocean portraying a host of zoo animals.
"'Life of Pi' was such an incredible story I just couldn't help myself, I had to tell this story," he said to audience applause. "This was an incredible journey for me."
DIRECTOR FOUND NOVEL 'MIND-BOGGLING'
With a budget of nearly $100 million, the film that opens in November in the United States is considered one of the riskier holiday season films.
Early reviews posted on Friday were mixed. The Hollywood reporter called it "exceptionally beautiful" and appealing to diverse audiences. Variety called it visually stunning but lacking in dramatic tension and grit.
Lee told reporters earlier on Friday that he read the novel soon after its release in 2001, and found it "mind-boggling." But he added, "I remember thinking to myself, nobody in their right mind" would transfer it to film due to the technical difficulties of filming the story.
Spurred on by its spiritual message, Lee agreed to make the movie and saw 3D as the only way to realize it, even before "Avatar" in 2009 broke through as a box-office bonanza for 3D movies.
"Life of Pi" stars novice Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who was plucked from more than 3,000 hopefuls. The book's author, Canadian writer Yann Martel, said he never imagined the film adaptation. "It was cinematic in my mind but I never thought I would actually see it on the screen, that it would be too complicated to do," he said.
Other films looking to gain favor with critics and audiences coming off showings at earlier festivals include Michael Haneke's "Amour," Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills," Noah Baumbach's black-and-white ode to New York, "Frances Ha," starring Greta Gerwig, and Chile director Pablo Larrain's "No."