Wild waters and spirits meet in "The Whale Rider’
A feisty girl who takes on the patriarchal structure of her New Zealand tribe offers a refreshing respite from run-of-the-mill summer blockbusters.
“The Whale Rider” takes its name from the legend of the first ancestor of the Maori tribe of Eastern New Zealand, Paikea, who rode to the island on the back of the whale. Therefore, the Maori people have an affinity for the whales, and the tribe’s chief is able to call to them. (Banish all thoughts of Dr. Doolittle – this is mystic realism at its finest.) Since the beginning, the role of chief has been passed down from first-born male to first-born male, on through the ages.
At the crux of the film is the question: what if the next leader is female? When fraternal twins are born to the son of Koro, the current chief, he believes the son is meant to be the next leader. Both the son and the mother die, leaving Pai, a little girl. Though Koro, played beautifully by Rawiri Paratene, loves his granddaughter, he can’t see beyond the patriarchal orientation he’s had all his life. He’s as unyielding in his belief to the point of harshness. But the whales have other plans for him.
“The Whale Rider” is a coming-of-age tale with sweeping scenery juxtaposed against cozy living rooms – with the freedom of the wild interwoven with the bonds of family. It’s pensive and hopeful and stubborn. Though not filled with action, it’s filled with story.
It’s hard to believe 12-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, Pai, is a novice actor. She captures all the seriousness of a little person destined for big things with the carefree manner of a child perpetually surrounded by love. Her relationship with her grandmother, Nanny Flowers, stabilizes her, while she forges ahead on the path she’s been placed on.
Screenwriter/director Niki Caro is not a Maori, but keeping the authenticity of the book by the same name was important to her. She hired Maori advisors in addition to casting Maoris as extras. The wild coast portrayed in the film is the same as the one in the book.
Despite the overarcing success “The Whale Rider” has had on the film festival circuit, it remains to be seen if the indy film can lure a summertime crowd into theaters. Yet the time spent watching the movie is time well spent. “The Whale Rider” is enjoyable from first to last.