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WHALE RIDER

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis
Director: Niki Caro
Audio: English 5.1 Dolby Digital or 2.0 Dolby Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, widescreen anamorphic 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: Director commentary, trailers, behind-the-scenes, deleted scenes, gallery, soundtrack excerpts
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: October 28, 2003

"In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness.  It was waiting, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader..."

Film *** 1/2

The Maori people of New Zealand have a legend of their ancestral origin.  It is a tale that begins when the Earth was much younger, from the distant isles of Hawaiiki.  One day, many moons ago, a man from that ancient realm looked towards the horizon and heard the sad cry of a land far beyond his shores.  The man's name was Paikea, and he determined to journey across the open seas in search of the land.  He sailed until his boat could travel no more and sank.  Then, he swam until his arms could carry him forth no further.  In his final moments of weariness, as the waves converged upon him, Paikea called upon the ancient ones for strength.  

They heard his plea.  In reply, they sent a great whale to rescue Paikea and to carry him on its back until, together, they reached the distant shores of the new land.  There, Paikea met the indigenous people, who greeted him warmly and made him their leader.  Paikea was wise and just in his rule, and for the remainder of his days, he never forgot the kindliness of the ancient ones or the whale that bore him to this new land.  Thus was born the legend of the whale rider.

Since those olden days, the Maori have always looked to the firstborn of their chief for the boy who would one day become their new leader.  So it was, and so it has been for countless generations.

However, as Te kaieke tohora (Whale Rider) opens, the old line has become broken.  The current chief, Koro, is elderly, and he begins to sense the endings of his days.  Koro looks to his son Porourangi to produce a suitable heir, and while a grandson is indeed born, he tragically dies during delivery, as does the mother.  Only Pai, an infant girl, survives.  Porourangi, grief-stricken, leaves his infant child in Koro's care and abandons his roots for a new home in Europe.

The young girl, Pai, is the last descendant in a bloodline extending back to Paikea.  Although Whale Rider is her story, it is also a tale about the transition and change that inevitably occurs in all cultures, as symbolized in the character of Koro, Pai's grandfather.

Koro is a man caught between the old ways and the modern age.  The conflicts between the ancient traditions of the Maori and modern society have lead to confusion and a dilution of the people's spirit.  Koro senses this and longs for a new leader who, after his passing, will provide strength and guidance once more to his people.  Without a male heir, Koro decides to gather forth the remaining firstborn sons from the village for a sacred school of teaching and challenges.  From these boys, there must emerge a new spiritual leader for his people, or the old ways may be forever lost.  Koro's strong cultural beliefs and firmly-engrained sense of tradition make him a stubborn man, and his sense of duty and sacrifice for his people blind him at times to everything else, even to the affections of his granddaughter, Pai.

For the past twelve years, Pai has remained in the care of her grandparents Koro and Flower.  In the absence of her father, she has been raised with gentle love, and even as events in the film transpire to drive Koro away from her, there is a sense that they still love each other very much.  Koro's eventual realization that perhaps the answer to his people's dilemma lies not in a boy, but in a girl, his own bloodline, helps him to reconcile with his granddaughter.

Rawiri Paratene, as Koro, has the difficult role as Pai's grandfather.  Although Koro initially scorns Pai simply for being a girl and not the grandson he so desired, we see that Koro has come to love her in his own quiet way.  Nevertheless, he is torn between his unmovable beliefs in the old traditions and his duties as family and as chieftain.

Likewise, Pai's father (Cliff Curtis) is flawed, although his heart is good.  Koro admonishes him during a visit, telling him, "You've got the privileges, but you forget you've also got the obligations." It is a comment regarding how Porourangi had forsaken his village of Whangara for Europe, yet it could also be construed as referring to his abandonment of his child.  Porourangi has returned in the hopes of atoning for his past failures, of becoming the father to Pai that he was not for twelve years.

It is a key theme in Whale Rider, that for whatever flaws which exist in the characters, they are still family and their survival rests in their unity.  These ideals, of acceptance and renewal, are important ones in the film, and they are further enhanced by the fact that Whale Rider presents the villagers and family members characters realistically, as three-dimensional characters with their strengths and their weaknesses.  Some of the interactions in the film can be painful or emotional at times, but there is always a sense of a real, closely-knit community trying to resolve its internal differences.

The mature attitude towards these age-old themes helps to make Whale Rider is an exceptional film for a family audience.  The film is intelligently written and directed, and at no point does it ever condescend to its audience.  Its central character may be a young girl, but this is not a children's film in a typical sense.  There is nothing childish about the film, which handles some very serious issues and can be even a bit poignant at times.  Despite its sad portions, this film succeeds in moving and enchanting us with a rich drama about tradition, family, and loyalty, set amongst the beautiful coastal waters and natural scenery of New Zealand.

The very heart of the film, however, is in its young actress lead, Keisha Castle-Hughes.  Her amazing presence as Pai gives the film its emotional resonance.  Watch, for example, her school speech which Pai dedicates to her grandfather.  It is a simple speech into which Castle-Hughes pours every bit of her soul, so much so that we easily sense her character Pai's continual love for her grandfather, even as he shuns her.

Whale Rider was only director Niki Caro's second feature-length film.  Although some of the plot elements are ultimately conventional, the film's beautiful locale and exotic culture and setting add a special touch of magic to the film.  Based on a popular Witi Ihimaera novel, Whale Rider might be considered a fantasy; however, it is filmed in a very realistic, almost documentary, style (and thus never devolves into a generic melodrama or a manipulative tear-jerker).  In fact, even the film's finale, which has some mild elements of the fantastic about it, feels convincing and quite probable.  Rather than a fantasy, Whale Rider might be more accurately described as a heartwarming rite of passage, not only for Pai, but perhaps for her family and people as well.

Video ***

Whale Rider was filmed in New Zealand and takes full advantage of the incredible landscape and seashores of that island nation.  This transfer, presented in an anamorphic widescreen format with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, does a fine job in conveying the lushness of the natural environs.  Colors are bold and bright, and compression artifacts are negligible, although the picture is slightly soft.  Otherwise, the film truly looks beautiful.

Audio *** 1/2

The audio track for Whale Rider is subtle but quite evocative.  It makes judicious but quiet usage of all the surround speakers to evoke the ambience and indigenous sounds of a seaside village.  While the film is essentially dialogue-driven, these natural sounds and the fine score by Lisa Gerrard play an important role in establishing the film's mood, which this DVD's audio quality reproduces very nicely.

Features *** 1/2

Director Niki Caro starts the proceedings with a commentary track for her film.  Whale Rider was obviously a labor of love for her, and her respect for the material is evident in her comments.  Caro also describes many of the subtle Maori customs depicted in the film, from the manner of personal greetings to cultural differences and traditional ceremonies.  Western viewers who may be confused by some aspects of the Maori culture should check out the commentary, as the answer to their query is probably in there, somewhere.  Caro even takes an opportunity to mention hobbits!

Next, there are five TV spots and one trailer.  The trailer is fine, but some of the promotional spots are stunningly bad or downright misleading.  For example, one spot makes the film appear like a Down Under version of The Karate Kid!  Another one stresses politically-correct feminist empowerment to the point of absurdity.  Just avoid these spots and watch the film on its own terms.

There are eight deleted scenes, a few of which are merely short extensions of existing scenes.  In general, these scenes deal with character development and are quite worthwhile.  Director Caro returns to provide optional commentaries for the deleted scenes, revealing their original location in the film and the reason they needed to be cut (mainly for purposes of pacing).

Behind the scenes of Whale Rider is a 27-minute look at the making of the film.  Most of the cast is on-hand to discuss the film and its themes.  We also learn how Keisha Castle-Hughes was discovered and cast in the role of Pai, her first ever film role.  This documentary includes several clips from the film and most interestingly also reveals how the whales were created (or photographed) for the film.

Te Waka: Building the Canoe is a short 11-minute featurette about the enormous 20-meter Waka war canoe in the film.  The Waka plays a crucial, symbolic role in the film, and this featurette provides glimpses of the arduous, two-month process behind its creation.  Curiously, the Waka does not actually appear in the novel upon which the film was based, but Caro wisely opted to include one in the film.  It is truly an impressive canoe, with the capacity to fit one hundred people!

An interesting extra on the DVD is Whale Rider: the Soundtrack.  Composer Lisa Gerrard offers a short introduction to this section, in which you have the option of listening to five different themes from the movie.  The music has a very ethereal, other-worldly quality to it that perfectly complements the film's oceanic feel and slight fantasy element.  Each individual theme will automatically re-play until you select a new theme.  There are approximately eleven minutes' worth of music here.

The final extra is an art and photo gallery.  It contains 34 entries; the photos are mostly stills from the production, while the art work is represented by various movie posters for the film.

Wait a second, there's an easter egg, too, so keep reading (unless you want to find it on your own)!  Go to the Special Features section and highlight MAIN MENU.  Then, push the left arrow to reveal the "audition tapes" for Keisha Castle-Hughes.  The audition segments last for about six minutes and demonstrate the refreshing talent in this young actress.

Lastly, on a side note, Whale Rider was originally rated PG-13 for its theatrical release in 2003.  There was a lot of controversy about this, because frankly, Whale Rider is barely even a PG film.  The fact that such a wonderful family film could be considered equivalent, rating-wise, to some of the year's violent super-hero or fantasy films is irrefutable evidence that the ratings system in America is in desperate need of an over-haul.

Summary:

Whale Rider is an enchanting and beautiful coming-of-age tale set in the exotic locales of New Zealand.  It is certainly one of the better family-oriented films of 2003, too, so give it a try!