Made in: New Zealand
Language: English, Maori
Directed by: Niki Caro
Starring: Keisha Castle Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa
Synopsis: Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. In an isolated Maori village on the eastern coast of New Zealand, tradition and modernity are on a collision course. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the current leader of his local Maori tribe, is searching for a new chief for his community.
His son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has left for Europe to make a living as an artist. And according to Maori custom, the next tribal chief must be a male. But Porourangi's son died in childbirth (which also claimed the life of Porourangi's wife), leaving only the child's twin sister Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as next in line.
But Koro is adamantly opposed to the thought of choosing a female as chief.
But when Paikea turns eleven, she turns out to be a smart kid eager to prove her competence as a leader. However, Koro stubbornly insists on preserving tradition despite the village's inevitable shift towards modernity.
Although she has an in-depth understanding of her heritage and culture, the compassionate Paikea resolves to fight an uphill battle against rejection and generations of rigid customs to prove her worthiness to her grandfather, and rightfully earn the title of chief.
The Good: Keisha Castle Hughes does a great job of bringing the character Paikea (or "Pai" as she is often referred) to life. She has a strong, natural charisma and creates a very realistic and sympathetic protagonist.
Rawiri Paratene also gives a strong performance as the grandfather, Koro. His rigid adherence to the "old ways" and rejection of Paikea will touch nerves, and gives the film a strong emotional current.
Whale Rider also effectively addresses the issue of cultural change among pre-colonial tribes, but does so without hitting the viewer over the head with the oppressive cudgel of political correctness.
The clashing of the modern age with Maori traditions and culture, shown through music, language, T-shirts, and cars, is very apparent but seen in the background. Those devices are used to enhance the messages of the film, instead of being excuses to preach to the audience.
Whale Rider is a touching story that is meticulously researched and beautifully filmed. The natural beauty of rural New Zealand and undersea cinematography are simply stunning, and do not subtract from the intimate nature of the movie.
The plot is simple, familiar, but very well executed.
The Bad: The film is a little slow at times, and although the acting is mainly solid throughout, there are a few moments when the cast (particularly the children) come across as a little stilted.
Who would like this movie: As far as foreign films go, Whale Rider is a feel-good movie with messages and lessons that are good for viewers of all ages.
I'd recommend this one if you're looking for family movies, and if you have an interest in Polynesian culture/history. This is a film that'll make a lasting impression.
The New Zealand accents might be a little hard to get used to for us Americans, but luckily the DVD comes with English subtitles to help you along so you won't miss a single line.
Finally, Whale Rider doesn't have a glossy Hollywood look to it. Rather, it has a very realistic visual style that makes you feel as though you know what it's like to be in New Zealand.
(3 out of 4 stars)
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