Pros: Acting, scenery, musical score
Cons: None - a solid four-star movie
There is a tribe in New Zealand that believes it is the direct descendent of a warrior named Paikea, who once rode to safety in New Zealand on the back of a whale. Traditionally, the first born male of the first born male is destined, and thus trained, to become tribe leader ever since. The first born, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis,) has just fathered twins—a boy and a girl. Unfortunately, both the boy and Porourangi’s wife died after childbirth. Angered, Porourangi names the girl Paikea and heads off to Europe, leaving the girl in the care of his tribal leader father Koro (Rawiri Paratene) and his mother Nanny (Vicky Haughton.) As she ages, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) believes she is destined to be leader, despite her grandfather’s staunch, stubborn objections in director Niki Caro’s 2002 film Whale Rider.
As she grows, Paikea is intelligent, and somewhat headstrong. She is a natural at everything from singing tribal songs to fighting with sticks. She also firmly believes that her birth has reset the natural order of the tribe back to the beginning, and that it is her destiny to be leader, despite her gender. Koro, however, is so steeped in tradition that he sets about finding and training the most talented boy from the village as leader rather than accept Paikea’s beliefs.
While Whale Rider is Paikea’s story, it’s almost less about her than it is the tale of old fashioned tradition attempting to stave off modernism. Koro’s second son, (Grant Roa,) is talented enough to be leader if he so desired, but he wants no part of it. He dresses in modern urban clothing and is content to hang out with his girl and his buddies, drinking beer. Porourangi also wants little to do with his tribe—he’s off earning a living in Germany as a photographer. In fact, the entire tribe seems to be slipping away from Koro, who desperately tries to hold on to his ancient beliefs as he looks for an open minded youth to pass them on to.
Caro put together a great, if mostly unknown cast for the film, including the use of local tribes people as extras. Castle-Hughes, in her first role, was so good that she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, and deservedly so. Veteran actor Paratene is outstanding as the old-fashioned Koro, and Haughton is equally as good as Koro’s wife, a strong-willed wife who won’t put up with Koro’s traditionalist nonsense. Throw in Curtis and Roa’s strong performances and you’ve got a cast worth watching. (And of special interest is the powerful musical score, composed and performed by Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard, which really puts an oomph into the scenes.)
This widescreen DVD also contains lots of good Special Features, the best of which is the Behind the Scenes feature. Here you’ll learn nuggets such as the fact that in casting Paikea, Caro did not want a seasoned actress. As Curtis said, “there are several people that can play my part, or this or that part,” but it was very important that they find the exact girl to play Paikea. They found Castle-Hughes, who’d never acted in a film before, courtesy of the same talent scout that found Anna Paquin for The Piano. You’ll also get the theatrical and TV trailers, a section full of Gerrard’s songs from the movie (and a personal note from Gerrard,) and a gallery of art and photo’s from the movie.
Whale Rider is another of those “I’d never have watched it in a million years DVD’s. It was a girlfriend pick, but it’s also one that I was glad I’d watched after it was over. It’s in the kid’s movie section at our local library, but it’s not really a kid’s film. It is a good one though, and well worth your time if you’re in the mood for a great indie film with outstanding acting and a beautiful musical score.