Sept. 8, 2003 – "Whale Rider" is the story of a 12-year-old Maori girl determined, in the face of fierce opposition, to fulfill what she believes is her destiny: to rule Whangara, the little New Zealand fishing village where she grew up.
That's on the surface, anyway. It is, by all accounts, much, much more. The unassuming little movie won audience awards at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals.
The film is set in present-day New Zealand. The girl, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), is fighting Maori tradition which, like most dynasties regardless of locale, dictates its ruler must be a male.
Pai's mother and twin brother died in childbirth. Her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), an artist, leaves New Zealand, and the girl is raised by her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene).
Porourangi, over Koro's objections, names his daughter Pai after Paikea, whom, in New Zealand legend, arrived there on the back of a whale centuries ago.
Pai loves her name, her village, her grandfather. And she feels it is her destiny to rule, a notion that Koro cannot sanction. He is the chief of the village and, tradition bound, he is determined that its new leader will be male. He is troubled that he has failed to keep the ancient tradition of passing authority from first-born son to first-born son.
Like ancient societies everywhere, the Maoris are trying to retain their values and culture.
Pai sets out to learn fighting techniques, chants, all the things she would need to know as a ruler; but she is constantly hurt by her grandfather's doubting of everything she does. She becomes so despondent that, when her father comes for a visit, she almost leaves with him.
Given the story line, the film could easily fall into formula. However, it does anything but, and the critics as one say this is where it gains its charm. One reviewer called it an "amazing, sad, funny and heartfelt story."
Roger Ebert describes Castle-Hughes as "a newcomer of whom it can only be said: This is a movie star. She glows. She stands up to her grandfather in painful scenes, she finds dignity, and yet the next second she's running [like a 12-year-old]."
The movie was adapted by director Niki Caro from Witi Ihamaera's novel. Mark Caro (no relation), in the Chicago Tribune, says: "Paratene has a face like a stone with warm currents rushing beneath it, and it shows every bit of Koro's ambivalence … He is playing the role he feels his ancestors have scripted for him, although he may wish otherwise."
According to Ebert, "the genius of the movie is the way it sidesteps all of the obvious cliches … It is observant, tough and genuinely moving." More than one reviewer has called it "magical."
And New Zealand does have a magical quality with its lush flora and fauna and its rich Maori tradition. The film was shot there; the book 's author is a Maori; the director is a New Zealander; and many Maoris are in the cast.
"Whale Rider" is rated PG-13 for "brief language" (whatever that means), and is one hour and 45 minutes long.
It starts Thursday at Market Square East.
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