Whale Rider (VHS, 2003)

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Girls Must Sit in the Back

Aug 13, 2005 (Updated Sep 2, 2005)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Superbly charming myth-based, cliché-free script; attention to authenticity; excellent performances; excellent visuals and sound

Cons:Poor management of subplots

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended for family or individual viewing. This is a moving story with an original and intelligent script and fine performances.


Here's a film that avoids most of the potential traps for its type of movie to provide a moving and original perspective on empowerment. It is the work of a rising star among filmmakers from Oceania, Niki Caro.

Historical Background: Niki Caro was born in 1967, in Wellington, New Zealand. Her first film, a short entitled Sure to Rise (1994), was screened at Cannes. That was followed by a made-for-television drama, The Summer the Queen Came (1994), which earned Caro nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Director at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards. Another short, Footage (1996), was screened at the Venice Film Festival. Caro's first feature film for the big screen, Memory and Desire (1997), won Best Film at the 1999 New Zealand Film and Television Awards. Whale Rider (2002) is Caro's best film to date and won international acclaim among film critics as well as admiration among ordinary film viewers. Caro is currently working on a film entitled North Country (2005), which is in post-production as of this writing.

Whale Rider was adapted from a novel by Wite Ihimaera (a Maori tribesman), based in part on a Maori legend. The Maoris (native inhabitants of New Zealand) have lived in New Zealand for more than a millennium. Genetically, they are composed of an admixture of Polynesian and Melanesian stock. They came by canoe from other Pacific islands, the last wave of voyagers arriving from Tahiti around 1350 A.D. In the northern part of New Zealand, Maoris grow sweet potatoes. On the seacoast, the Maoris live by fishing. Traditionally, the Maori men hunt, fish, or plough, while the women weave, cook, and weed the fields. The Maoris consist of more than twenty tribes, each descended from an immigrant ancestor. Primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born) is a bulwark of the social system and determines the succession of the highest chief, called the ariki, for a tribe. The Maori language belongs to the Polynesian family of languages and is thus related to Hawaiian, Tahitian, and Samoan. To the world at large, the most famous person of Maori descent is Kiri te Kanawa, a renowned opera diva who appears on my list MY FAVORITE MUSICAL PERFORMERS OF ALL-TIME (A-Z) WRITE-OFF.

The Story: The Whangara tribe of Maoris inhabit a small village on the eastern coast of New Zealand. According to legend, their immigrant ancestor, Paikea, arrived in New Zealand on the back of a whale. The line of succession from Paikea, via the first born male, has been unbroken for more than a thousand years. The current chief, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), has two sons, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), the eldest, and Rawiri (Grant Roa). As the film opens, Porourangi's wife is painfully engaged in delivering twins, one male and one female. Unfortunately, both the mother and the male twin die during the birthing process, leaving the infant girl, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes), as the sole survivor of the ordeal. Both Koro and Porourangi are devastated, in different ways, by the tragic developments. Koro is bitterly disappointed that the male bloodline, which has persisted for centuries, is at risk of coming to an end. Porourangi, by contrast, is grief-stricken by the death of his beloved wife.

Most of the story takes place when Paikea Apirana is eleven years of age. Her father, Porourangi, has fled to Europe, where he is pursuing life as an artist. Paikea has remained in the village with her grandparents and seldom sees her father for more than a day or two during his brief visits home. Paikea has grown into an intelligent and intense little girl with a pervasive determination to please her grandfather. Koro has grown to love his little granddaughter, though he remains bound by the Chauvinistic traditions of Maori society. Paikea derives unqualified support from her grandmother, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), who has had more than her fill of her husband's presumptions about the limitations of being female.

Porourangi returns home for a visit with his parents and daughter and Koro still harbors hopes of luring his son back to the village to fulfill his duties as successor. Koro even goes so far as to play matchmaker, inviting Miss Parata, a young Maori woman, to Porourangi's slide slow of his art works. That notion is soon quashed when a slide appears showing Porourangi cuddling his German girlfriend, Anna, who is several months pregnant.

Koro decides that one of the other first-born sons of the village will have to be selected as successor. He opens a school to train the boys in the "old ways," such as fighting with a Taiaha, somewhat like the pugo stick combat taught in Marine Corps boot camp in America, except that the Maoris put a lot of stock in the value of fierce faces and tongue protrusions to intimidate one's foe. Paikea is told she'll have to sit in the back because she's a girl. When she refuses, Koro makes her leave. Paikea's uncle, Rawiri, was once a real hotshot with the Taiaha. As a second-born son, he too has chafed under his father's rigid adherence to primogeniture, so he relishes the opportunity to thwart Koro by secretly teaching Paikea how to handle the Taiaha. Later, Paikea out-duels one of the young lads, Hemi (Mana Taumaunu), much to her grandfather's chagrin. Koro takes out his anger on both Paikea and Hemi, dropping the latter from the training program.

The final test, for the boys of the school, is recovery a whale's tooth from the bottom of the ocean. As Koro explains, "If you have the tooth of a whale, you must have the whale's jaw to wield it." The boys dutifully dive for it (except one who has a cold and another who can't swim), but even the best of them come up empty handed. Koro sinks into a deep depression as he begins to realize that perhaps none of these boys are chieftain material. Later, while out in a boat with her uncle, Paikea declares, "I'll get it!" And so she does!

One of the film's highlight scenes is a speech given by Paikea at the local school. She had won not only the local school's speech contest but also that for the entire region. Her speech is in honor of her grandfather, who has not, however, deigned to show up. He's still brooding over his failure to anoint a successor. In a passionate and touching scene, Paikea delivers her speech with tears streaming down her face. Meanwhile, Koro has at least mustered the energy to get out of bed, in order to wander along the shoreline. There he encounters several beached whales. This is a particularly momentous development because the whales are viewed as spiritual allies of this tribe, ever since their ancestor, Paikea, arrived riding a whale. The entire village becomes invested in the effort to help the whales return to the sea. The rest of the developments you'll have to discover for yourself. Another precious moment occurs when Nanny Flowers finally hands the recovered whale tooth to Koro, who inquires, "Which one?", meaning "Which boy recovered it?" Nanny Flowers gives him a withering look and replies, "What do you mean, 'Which one?'" By then, the answer should have been clear even to Koro.

Themes: On the surface, this film is about female empowerment. The fact of the matter is that Paikea is more suited for leadership than are any of the young boys who are her contemporaries. She is assertive and idealistic, competent and, possibly, mystically endowed for a leadership role. In the end, however, this film promotes a theme even more elevated: empowerment of everyone, through pulling together and giving each person a fair opportunity. Koro's narrow-minded adherence to primogeniture negatively impacted Paikea, Rawiri, Nanny Flowers, and Hemi alike.

Production Values: My synopsis of the story of this film cannot do the film full justice. There are a number of qualities in the screenplay that raise it above just another "girl-power" kind of story. The first is that Caro (and the novel's author Ihimaera) studiously avoided any number of clichés to which they could have easily resorted. There are a half-dozen points in the story in which the standard Hollywood development doesn't occur. Even the film's resolution rises above the ordinary or predictable to a transcendent domain.

A second major strength of the script is incorporation of frequent moments of effective comedy. The only risqué example of humor in the film occurs early on, when Paikea chastises her grandmother's card-playing circle about their smoking cigarettes, which they've unsuccessfully tried to hide. Paikea tells them that Maori women need to protect their childbearing properties. Later, after Paikea has departed, one of the women quips, "You'd have to smoke in a pretty funny place to endanger your childbearing properties." There's also a lot of good humor in the "fierce faces" offered by the Maori boys and men in conjunction with the Taiaha training. Another strength of the script is that several of the characters are well enough drawn to achieve three-dimensional proportions.

One hates to carp about any aspect of a script that is as original and intelligent as this one, but there is one significant problem with the film. While the main storyline is handled beautifully, more than one secondary plot is initiated but left dangling in the end. One subplot concerns Hemi, whose father is an ex-con, still hanging out with other thugs. Then, Koro mistreats Hemi after Paikea defeats the boy in their Taiaha duel. Yet, we are given no idea, in the end, about what becomes of Hemi. Why invest screen time in Hemi's circumstances and then leave it so badly unresolved? Similarly, the subplot relating to Porourangi is too little developed. There are intimations that he returns to the village at the end, but no indication as to whether it is a visit or a permanent return. If Anna's child is a boy, will he become chief some day?

The cinematography for this film is very good. There are plenty of lush landscapes in this remote part of New Zealand to brighten the film's visuals. To her credit, Caro insisted on filming the picture in the actual village where the novel is set. She also used many of the villagers in the secondary roles and as extras. The soundtrack is engaging, both for the music and the Maori chanting.

The performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes is one of the highlights of the film. This was her first film performance. Where she reveals hesitancy or uncertainty, it only adds to the credibility of her performance. Her inquisitive face and sensitive dark eyes reveal precisely the right degree of developing potential without slipping into cartoonish superhero nonsense. Castle-Hughes very nicely illuminates the ways in which Paikea is similar to her grandfather (driven by pride and hurt), even as she opposes him. Rawiri Paratene is excellent as Koro, nicely balancing his positive and negative qualities. Vicky Haughton (as Nanny Flowers) and Cliff Curtis (as Porourangi) turned in strong supporting performances. I thought Grant Roa, as Rawiri, provided the most delightful comic moments.

Bottom-Line: The Special Edition DVD from Sony and New Market Films provides a very nice package of extras. The director's commentary is better than most such tracks. There are eight deleted scenes, along with an explanation by Caro and author Witi Ihimaera about why they were deleted. You'll find the customary theatrical trailer and television spots. Then, there're two featurettes, one detailing the filming of the whales and the other the building of the canoe or Te Waka. There's an art and photo gallery as well.

Whale Rider premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been yanking tears from viewers ever since. Don't be fooled by the fact that this myth-based film stars an eleven-year-old girl or by the theme of female empowerment, which is somewhat overworked, these days, by Hollywood. This is a remarkably intelligent film fully worthy of adult, child, and family viewing. I guarantee you will be touched by it.


Recommend this product? Yes

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