Here comes Disney’s reinvention of Mulan, perhaps the studio’s best effort yet to give girls an action hero they can believe in. The production looks suitably extravagant, and the cast — in a remarkable shift from the Disney white-washing norms — looks completely and properly Asian. These teasers they’re giving us bring to mind the epics of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) at his best.

But for me, the most promising aspect of the new Mulan is Disney’s choice of director: Niki Caro.

After all, Caro has enthralled audiences before with the story of a young female hero who subverts the expectations of her people and overturns restrictive patriarchal traditions. It’s been a while, but I’m glad for this excuse to revisit a film that impressed me when I saw it back in 2003, and that has had more staying power than I expected.

My ongoing appreciation for Whale Rider stems from two of the film’s strengths: its haunting musical score (thank you, Lisa Gerrard) and its lead actress, whose performance remains vivid in my memory.

Back in 2003, Keisha Castle-Hughes wasn’t part of a galaxy far, far away yet. (She’d play one of Princess Amidala’s decoys in Star Wars: Episode Three — Revenge of the Sith.) She hadn’t played the young virgin Mary traveling with newcomer Oscar Isaac’s Joseph in 2006’s The Nativity Story. She didn’t need a George Lucas blockbuster or the endorsement of Christian leaders to catapult her into the spotlight.

All she needed was the right director, a woman who believed in her quiet power, and a character she could bring to life.

Castle-Hughes found those in Caro… and in the character of Pai.

Here’s a flashback to my original review of Whale Rider…

… which I’ve revised slightly to correct some errors and some clumsy writing.

You know how these hero stories begin. A narrator intones a prologue in sonorous tones:

“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness….” waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader….”

And so, true to its mythic template, Whale Rider begins with those words. Writer and director Niki Caro raises a curtain of deep sea blue onto a pageant that acquaints us with a real-world culture conflict: The Maori of New Zealand, like so many peoples of the world, are deeply rooted in patriarchal traditions, and, as depicted here, they are struggling with how to survive in a changing world where restrictive gender roles are dissolving under the light and heat of wisdom.

But Caro’s story, which so easily could feel stridently political and preachy, instead — with a fusion of a mystically evocative musical score, a thrilling performance by an irresistible actress, earnest and spirited work from an all-Maori supporting cast, and an extravagant backdrop of New Zealand coastline — catches us in that familiar but oh-so-reliable narrative net known as “A Hero Will Rise.”

So, yes, this is a film that follows a time-tested formula. Whale Rider isn’t interested in reinventing the shape of such a story; it’s interested in achieving two other ends: revealing the glory of the Maori people and traditions, while also challenging those traditions by rewriting the rules on who gets to play particular roles.

What captures our attention about this portentous opening is this: It is, contrary to the ponderous norm, spoken by a young girl, her voice soft, as if she is reciting a sacred story to herself in reverence: “In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader….”

With this fusion of the familiar and the unexpected, Caro — drawing from a novel by New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera — lures us into an immersion in the rich, sensual qualities of present-day Maori culture, a remarkable tapestry of past and present. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the Maori leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, is looking for a young male that he can train up to succeed him. One of his sons has grown fat and lazy. The other, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), has abandoned the tribe because of a terrible tragedy.

Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the Maori leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, is looking for a young male that he can train up to succeed him.

“There was no gladness when I was born,” our narrator, young Pai (newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes) 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.

Some of the credit for the way this film transcends its own genre goes to Australian singer and composer Lisa Gerrard (famously of the band Dead Can Dance). The lush oceanic swells of her score are worth diving into on their own, for an immersive experience separate from the film itself. But here, her singular voice, backed by a sort of deep-sea angel choir, brings an appropriately mystical tone to the adventure.

But a good deal of credit also goes to Keisha Castle-Hughes, an astonishing young actress. Speaking lines that could so easily have sounded routine and uninspired, she brings young Pai to life a three-dimensionally human girl in whom we easily believe.

Stories of young heroes usually draw from a familiar set of action figures: the boy wide-eyed with wonder who somehow becomes the least interesting character in his own story; the snarky rebel who cleverly smacks down the nay-sayers; the humble servant who discovers a magical weapon and learns, like David with his slingshot, to slay giants. Whale Rider sets itself apart with Pai, who, at only 12 years old, is quiet, watchful, reluctant, and yet courageous. Like John Sayles’s charming modern folk tale The Secret of Roan InnishWhale 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. But it does, and the film’s conclusion is surprisingly satisfying.

By the end of the film, Pai has humbled the willful grownups around her and won over even the cliché-weary cynics in the audience. In fact, her monologue near the end of the film still strikes me like a powerful wave, washing away the last of my resistance. I’m shaken when the scene is over — ready to follow this hero and fight for her people’s future.

Until that moment, I’m not completely won over. After the film’s startling beginning, I retreat at times into a state of detached observation, recognizing this as a story I have been told many times before. I’m weary of “Behold the Chosen One!” narratives. And I’m easily aggravated by big, one-note performances that give us Types instead of Human Beings, like the stuff of mediocre, formulaic television. Formulas are not a bad thing: they’re formulas because they are founded in time-tested truths about human nature and history.

But when those patterns are not played with particularity, passion, and evident love, they become stale and obvious. A performance as specific and subtle as Castle-Hughes’s makes us forget where the formula leads, captivating us with the immediacy and impact of real life. She stands out among this expressive cast by her silence, her patience. She is the still point, which in the flamboyance of her community rings out like a shout.

A couple of things linger with me as setbacks to an otherwise enthralling film.

We’re told that Koro has his hopes for succession  set on his grandson because his own sons have been disappointments to him. Pai’s father Porourangi, who might have followed in his father’s footsteps, is portrayed as a noble man with honorable ambitions who, suffering a grievous loss, responds by leaving home to pursue a dream rather than staying to fulfill the plans of his father and his people.

We can empathize with his grief and his need to remove himself. But the film asks us to easily absolve him for leaving his daughter behind. The loss of a wife and a son justifies him in abandoning his daughter? This decision isn’t given enough attention, and too little attention is given to Porourangi’s reunion with her. While the grandfather’s disregard for his granddaughter is demonized, the father’s failure is quickly absolved. I’m not sure Porourangi deserve the admiring treatment the film gives him.

I was also confused by the Maori reverence for their tribal traditions. Threatened by 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, I do not feel the loss that Koro feels as sharply as I might. I sense real warmth and integrity in the particularity of their greetings, their beliefs, their values. 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 best an immersive aesthetic experience, and as the story of one young girl’s triumph in humbling her elders and gaining respect. In this case, it succeeds enough earn it my hearty recommendation.