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Whale Rider

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Whale Rider

from Film Forum, 06/26/03

Whale Rider begins with a sense of expectation. A prophecy is going to be fulfilled. A hero will rise. But this epic about New Zealand's Maori traditions features something different than a muscle-bound, sword-wielding warrior. Director Niki Caro's contemporary myth chronicles the heroics of a 12-year-old girl with a gift for leadership.

What sets Whale Rider apart from other Young Hero epics is how it portrays its young female protagonist. Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is just a kid, but she is intelligent, deeply emotional, and impressively brave. By the end of the film, she has humbled the willful grownups around her and won the audience's hearts.

Her story plays out against the backdrop of a New Zealand costal community. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, has given up on passing leadership to his sons. One is fat and lazy, the other abandoned the tribe to be an artist in Germany. So Koro wants a young man who will embrace the tribe's traditions.

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 her place in the tribal history.

Some of the credit goes to Caro for directing such an enchanting adaptation of New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera's novel. Lisa Gerrard should also be commended for providing music that suits the story's mystical qualities.

But a good deal of credit also goes to Keisha Castle-Hughes, the astonishing young actress who brings to life Pai's sufferings and triumphs. She transforms this production into a heart-wrenching drama. Her monologue near the end of the film is delivered with fierce energy; this simple speech becomes more breathtaking than all of the special-effects sequences in Hulk put together. Like Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence and John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Innish, 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.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) asks, "So, are there any family-friendly movies out right now that are actually friendly for the whole family? Indeed there are, though you'll have to find an art theater to see it. Fortunately, the trip is worth the effort. Whale Rider is a marvelous adventure tale."

Movieguide's critic objects because the film portrays "an acceptance of pagan beliefs, including ancestor worship, in its story, which also takes a syncretistic approach that provides a multicultural, feminist, politically-correct spin." But he admits, "The positive, profamily themes in the movie may also furnish some insights for Christians."

Should we fault a film about a foreign culture because the film illustrates that culture's beliefs? Perhaps, if the film becomes propaganda for those beliefs, driven by an evangelistic agenda. But Whale Rider is more concerned with the story of a neglected child finding confidence and doing her best with what she has been given. This is hardly worth disregarding as merely feminist or politically correct. While Whale Rider does portray a people seemingly unconcerned with Christian faith, viewers can see in Pai strong metaphors for the way God can bow down the proud and give grace to the humble, and the way he can raise up a little David (or Pai) to lead a struggling people in the most unlikely places.

Mainstream critics certainly seem inspired by the film. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says the movie "makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving. There is a vast difference between movies for 12-year-old girls, and movies about 12-year-old girls, and Whale Rider proves it. It's not just an uplifting ending, but a transcendent one, inspired and inspiring." And Kenneth Turan (L.A. Times) agrees, calling it "a work of great warmth with an overwhelming finale … a substantial film of unexpected emotional force. And when at a certain point it seems to slip the bonds of this world and take a leap of faith into an almost mythological dimension, it breathlessly takes us along for that memorable ride."

from Film Forum, 08/07/03

Whale Rider continues to ride waves of good buzz. Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) turns in a late-breaking, but thorough and enlightening, review of one of the summer's sleeper hits: Whale Rider. He writes, "It could very well be a script full of tired formulas and predictable characters. And it is. But there is something that, despite all of these potential drawbacks, makes Whale Rider such a powerful experience. From a story that has been told too many times in too many contexts, Caro creates something refreshingly original."

Denny Wayman and Hal Conklin (Cinema in Focus) are also impressed. "As a retelling of an ancient legend, the messages are universal. Parents and grandparents often place expectations on children that seem impossible to fulfill. At the same time, parents are afraid that their lives will be failures unless their children succeed. Parents … must be shown that it is not until their children and grandchildren become who they are created to be that harmony and unity is restored."

But they do admit some misgivings about the film: "The spiritual messages in the film are primitive. Worshiping the creature rather than the Creator is a primitive form of religion found throughout the world."