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Whale Rider

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Whale Rider

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene
Director: Niki Caro
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: June 2003
Genres: Drama, Foreign

*Also starring: Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu, Rachel House, Taungaroa Emile, Tammy Davis, Mabel Warekawa-Butt, Rawinia Clarke, Tahei Simpson

Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Human beings would probably not like to fly too close to the sun, get burned, and fall to earth swiftly, which is why we don't often try to act like mythological characters. But imagine getting the chance to do something like that? In "Respiro," for example, an all-too-spirited woman who is an outcast on her Italian island of Lampedusa once swam deeply underwater without surfacing, an apparent suicide causing the people who had made fun of her to feel guilty and to wish for her safe return. Thanks to their prayers and to a statue of the Madonna resting on the bottom of the sea, she was duly returned to life just like her legendary ancestor. In Niki Caro's "Whale Rider," an eleven-year-old New Zealand girl who is determined to become the first tribe chief in her Maori village, gets to ride a whale just like her mythological ancestor, a jaunt which has far more resonance than the one that kids on spring break take on the backs of dolphins in the waters of Cancun. "Whale Rider," then, is the story of female empowerment: not an exceptionally new topic but rather one which could lead to a tiring film unless that film illustrates the phenomenon in an original way.

Since the village of Whangara is not like most of the rest of New Zealand and since New Zealand is considered by some an exotic destination (unless you live in, say, Auckland or Sydney), "Whale Rider" is an exotic movie, just the thing to put a new spin on uppity females. The heroic femme of Caro's pic, based on a novel by Witi Ikhimaera, is an eleven year old named Pai (played by Keisha Castle-Hughes who bears an unusual resemblance to Adrien Brody). Since her mother and her only brother died in childbirth not usually a good sign if the future leader of the Whangara people is to be a male she is determined to fulfill the mandate laid down way, way back by her ancestors and take on the leadership of her clan. "No way!" insists the traditional but not unkindly grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) in his native Whangara language, when he and his wife Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) take on the girl's upbringing once Pai's dad, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) leaves for Germany to do some sculpting. "Yes I can!" replies Pai, I think (if my understanding of Whangara is what it used to be).

Like Lee Tamahori's "Once Were Warriors," which dealt with a woman from a poor, urbanized Maori family who can no longer tolerate her husband's abuse, "Whale Rider" takes on the theme of a person who is put down only because of her gender. While Pai's grandmother is ready at the drop of a stick to leave her marriage to the verbally abusive and sexist Koro, Pai by contrast rejects an offer to leave home and travel with her dad: That's no way for a future chief to act.

After defeating a boy her age in a duel involving broomsticks and suffering putdowns by her granddad while being supported by grandma, Pai boldly sets out to recover the whale's tooth that Koro has tossed into the sea. Koro has promised that whoever can recover the enamel is going to be his heir. Diving from a boat to find the tooth is too traditional for the liberated Pai. She recovers it just so that some critics can say, "The movie is a whale ride!" Director Niki Caro, who is not a Maori but who won over the Whangara people in her quest to illustrate their ways, tells us all we might want to know about these folks who live among themselves and seem rarely to see anyone outside their tribe. What she does not tell us is how the heck they make a living. After all, daddy Porourangi drives a car and flies to Germany and back, and there's lot of food on the table. Since they don't sell whales (those mammals are demi-gods to the Wharanga in much the way dolphins are off-limits to American appetites), how do they make a living? And why don't they speak like the folks in Nebraska so that we in the audience don't have to miss a few words now and then?

Not really important, though. Keish Castle-Hughes is a credit to the women's movement in an awfully nice role, and the whole ensemble is peachy, though a little scary when they stick out their tongues and bulge their eyes to make their enemies shudder.

Copyright 2003 Harvey Karten

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