(director/writer: Niki Caro; screenwriter: from the novel by Witi Ihimaera; cinematographer: Leon Narbey; editor: David Coulson; music: Lisa Gerrard; cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Pai), Rawiri Paratene (Koro), Vicky Haughton (Nanny Flowers), Cliff Curtis (Porourangi), Rachel House (Shilo), Mana Taumaunu (Hemi), Grant Roa (Rawiri); Runtime: 105; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Tim Sanders/John Barnett/Frank Hubner; Newmarket Films; 2002/New Zealand-in English, subtitled in Maori)

Keisha Castle-Hughes gives a natural performance that is heartwarming and memorable.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Whale Rider is a simplistic mythic tale set in a present day eastern coastal Maori village in New Zealand. It’s adapted from a 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera and scripted and helmed by Niki Caro (“Memory and Desire“– she’s not a Maori). According to Maori custom, they claim they were delivered to New Zealand from Paikea (the other world) on the backs of the whale. In every generation for more than 1000 years, a male heir born to the Chief claims the title in an unbroken line. Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) is one of the Chief’s two sons, but both have rejected their privilege to succeed as chief. Porourangi’s wife and male son die at childbirth, but the twin sister Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) survived. Porourangi’s father Koro (Rawiri Paratene) resents the girl since he has his heart set on getting a new male chief for his people. Koro is certain that the tribe’s misfortunes began at Pai’s birth and rails against the innocent child whenever things go wrong with his traditional trip. The disgusted Porourangi rejects the notion of getting another Maori wife and trying for a male heir, as he splits soon after his daughter’s birth for Germany to be a sculptor–returning only once for a brief visit.

Porourangi leaves the infant Pai in the hands of the resentful Koro and his caring wife Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), who tries to give the child all the love that she can. The stubborn Koro is so blinded by his traditional beliefs that he can’t see that his granddaughter has all the characteristics and mystical powers of a born leader, and refuses to give her a chance to prove herself. The theme of feminism is used to show how the traditions must be altered to fit with the present and also that losing one’s tradition completely is unwise. The young adults who have lost the way are shown to be loafers sitting around drinking beer and leading useless lives. They are soon forced to either leave the village for greener pastures due to lack of good employment prospects or remain idlers.

Koro eases up in his ill treatment of the 12-year-old Pai and takes her to school on his bike, and she greatly adores gramps no matter how grumpy he acts. After 12 years pass Porourangi returns as a successful artist and tells gramps his German girlfriend is pregnant. Gramps is desperate to get a male successor and starts a school for the village 12-year-old boys to teach them the ways of their tribe (ancient chants, tribal lore and warrior techniques) and to see who has the right stuff to be chief, while he keeps his granddaughter out of his school only because of her gender. The guilt-stricken Porourangi wants to take Pai back with him to Europe, but the spunky girl hears the whales calling on her to stay and become leader. It predictability leads to her showing that she’s the real leader her unaware gramps was looking for, as she performs a miracle while acting courageously to save her tribe from possible extinction after a herd of whales are stranded on the beach.

The story was not groundbreaking nor did it have anything exciting to say, but it was assuredly directed and newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes gives a natural performance that is heartwarming and memorable. Its simple tale had a beguiling charm and it’s filled with eye-pleasing beautifully photographed location shots (it was shot in the fishing village of Whangara) and the chanting songs had a mystical power that hooked me into staying tuned in, even though I didn’t feel it had anything important to say and all the contrived melodramatics turned me off. I thought the Maoris were losing their cultural ways through globalization and that it was not all bad to get with modernity (contrary to what the film implies), and finding a new leader in such a compulsive and raging way seemed like a diversion from facing their real problems. The gruff Chief was the kind of leader who showed no people skills and his heart was too hardened for anything other than finding a successor. The chief was so unlikable that when he finally accepts the girl, I couldn’t care less what he thought.

Whale Rider Poster