Whale Rider (2002)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness waiting to be filled up…”

With those words, Whale Rider begins, instantly casting its contemporary tale of culture clash in mythical terms.

What catches our attention about this portentous opening is this: It is spoken in the voice of a young girl. Whale Rider stands out from the crowd of movies about young people because of how it portrays its young female protagonist. Pai is only 12 years old, but she is intelligent, deeply emotional, and impressively brave. In fact, by the end of the film, she has humbled the willful grownups around her, and won our hearts as well.

Some of the credit goes to director Niki Caro for taking this simple hero story from a novel by New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera and making it such an enchanting adventure. Lisa Gerrard should be commended for a score that enhances the story’s powerful sense of mystery.

But a good deal of credit also goes to Keisha Castle-Hughes, the astonishing young actress. She transforms a script that strays too close to clichés into a heart-wrenching drama. In fact, her monologue near the end of the film is delivered with such fierce energy that I was drawn suddenly and deeply into the movie and I was left shaken when the scene was over.

Until that moment, I had not been completely won over by Whale Rider. Some of its performances are like the stuff of television drama. And the story follows an all-too-familiar path of the Prophesied Hero coming to Lead the People. After the film’s startling beginning, I retreated into a state of detached observation, recognizing this as a story I have been told many times before. Formulas are not a bad thing. They are echoes of familiar truths. But when those patterns are not played with passion, they seem stale and obvious. A detailed, subtle, convincing performance like the one delivered by Keisha Castle-Hughes makes us forget where the formula leads, captivating us with the immediacy and impact of real life.

The other aspect of Whale Rider that makes its contemporary-myth ultimately compelling is the way it immerses us in present-day Maori culture.

The story takes place in New Zealand, where Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the Maori leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, is looking for a young male that he can train up to be the next leader. One of his sons has grown fat and lazy. The other, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), has abandoned the tribe because of a terrible tragedy. “There was no gladness when I was born,” young Pai informs us. “My twin brother died and took our mother with him…” This excruciating event sends Porourangi running and leaves Koro without a son or a grandson to inherit his authority.

Since the tribe only looks to men for leadership, Koro grows angry when Pai herself starts showing all the signs of the traditional “crown prince.” He refuses to consider her as an alternative. It is up to his wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton), a wiser, gentler sort of leader, to cultivate Pai’s virtues behind Koro’s back until the time is right for her to claim what “the gods” have planned for her.

Like John Sayles’s charming modern folk tale The Secret of Roan Innish, Whale Rider follows its young female protagonist into a growing sense of her cultural heritage, family secrets, and, of course, a prophecy. And like Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, the film treats its spirited heroine like a grownup, giving her an emotional complexity and a quiet intuitive nature that makes her seem more mature than anyone around her.

As she grows in knowledge and courage, Pai suffers a series of trials and rejections that seem familiar, recalling even such predictable audience favorites as The Karate Kid. But the film’s last hour takes on an enchanting quality. As the legends that Pai has always been taught seem to come to life around her, she claims her connection to the tribe’s legendary hero, Paikea, the boy who traveled across the ocean on the back of a whale. Our anticipation rises as we wonder what she will do to show such a connection. The revelation, when it comes, is something so ambitious that I never would have dreamed it would work convincingly. But it does, and the film’s conclusion surprisingly satisfying.

But there are a few flaws that frustrated me along the way.

Koro had his hopes set on his grandson because his own sons have been disappointments to him. Pai’s father is portrayed as a noble man with honorable ambitions, who righteously follows his dream rather than conforming to his father’s plans. So far so good. But the film asks us to accept him as noble and justified for moving away from New Zealand and leaving his daughter behind. What kind of message does that send a little girl? She’s not important enough to him? He’s too sad about the loss of his wife and son to take care of the daughter who miraculously survived? While we see that Porourangi is important to Pai, our director gives us no sense that he might have done the wrong thing in abandoning her so he could pursue art–and women–in another country. Koro’s disregard for his granddaughter is demonized; Porourangi does not deserve the admiring treatment the film gives him.

I was also confused by the Maori reverence for their tribal traditions. With diminishing numbers and increasing cultural distractions (drugs, alcohol, sports cars), Koro labors to inspire appreciation and reverence for the Maori rituals and culture. But he has only reluctant disciples. I would have appreciated some more detailed exhibits of precisely what the traditions are and what they mean. Without that, we do not feel the loss that Koro feels as sharply as we might. I sense some real warmth and appreciation of family life in their affectionate nose-rubbing greetings. But watching a bunch of boys bat at each other with sticks in Maori martial arts training does not make me cry out “Preserve their heritage!”

Thus, Whale Rider works for me only as the story of one young girl’s triumph in humbling her elders. And that, in this case, is done well enough to earn it a hearty recommendation.

Director / writer – Niki Caro
Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera
Director of photography – Leon Narbey
Editor – David Coulson
Music – Lisa Gerrard
Production designer – Grant Major
Producers – Tim Sanders, John Barnett and Frank Hubner
Newmarket Films. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.
STARRING: Keisha Castle-Hughes (Pai), Rawiri Paratene (Koro), Vicky Haughton (Nanny Flowers) and Cliff Curtis (Porourangi).


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