In the ways of the ancients, she found a hope for the future.
At once a magical and transporting picture, Niki Caro's Whale Rider is the best kind of heart-tugger, the kind that doesn't hit the audience over the head with sentimentality but instead lets the emotion flow naturally out of the story and characters. Though it'll probably get overshadowed by behemoths like Return of the King come Oscar time, this is a beautiful, lyrical little film that deserves to find an audience, and features one of the most astonishing child performances ever put on film.
Facts of the Case
There is a Maori legend that speaks of a chief, Paikea, who came to New Zealand from the ancient lands riding on the back of a whale. When he died, it was prophesized that he would return again to lead his people to a new age of spiritual prosperity.
In a Maori village in present day New Zealand, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a direct descendent of Paikea, believes that his son's wife is about to give birth to this long-awaited savior. But when the child's twin sister is the only one to survive the childbirth, her father, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), is insistent on giving her the name of the ancient leader.
Eleven years later, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) has gained the love of her grandfather, but is still rejected as the possible heir to Paikea, because she is a girl. And while Koro seeks other possible candidates to lead the Maori tribe, Pai finds that she must reach deep within herself to finally fulfill her destiny and become the leader of her people.
When it was released this past summer, Whale Rider faced an uphill battle from the get-go. Already an audience favorite from the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, it nonetheless was thrust into a crowded summer marketplace that doesn't usually favor the kind of languid pacing and irony-free story that Whale Rider represents (being slapped with an idiotic PG-13 rating couldn't have helped matters either). A computer-animated film about fish filled with goofy sidekicks and off-the-wall humor? That's an easy sell. A New Zealand-set fable about a 12-year-old Maori girl struggling to claim her birthright in the face of her grandfather's antiquated ideals? That's a little tougher.
Luckily, though, word of mouth got around and Whale Rider became one of the summer's biggest little success stories, building a small but dedicated following and pulling in a nice, if not Finding Nemo-sized profit. And it's a wonderful thing, too, because this is easily one of the year's very best films.
When I saw Whale Rider in its theatrical run, I struck by its refreshing lack of sentimentality, its refusal to melt into the sappiness one would normally come to expect from a story like this. It was a tearjerker to be sure, and an effective one at that. But there was a feeling of genuine toughness to the characters, an earthiness that lent the film a powerful sense of reality, so that when the big emotional moments came, I cried not because I felt I had to, but because I was truly affected by what was going on.
Revisiting the film on DVD, I found myself getting misty-eyed again, not only during these emotional scenes, but in the very anticipation of what I knew was coming. The film had had such a lasting effect on me that looking ahead to what I remembered from that first viewing, I couldn't help but be moved. You know a movie has left a deep impression on you when you find yourself crying about things that haven't happened yet onscreen.
Credit for this is mostly due to the film's star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Pai as someone who has every reason to be angry and resentful of her grandfather's refusal to acknowledge her as an acceptable leader of their people, but who has such a big heart, and loves him so much that she winds up defending his actions to those who would criticize him. There is a heartbreaking irony in the fact that in Koro's desperation to find a chief for his tribe, he decides to train all of the village's firstborn boys in the ways of their ancestors, when it is obvious that Pai is the only one who is anxious to learn about them. Of all the children, she is the one who really believes in the Whale Rider legend, so much so that she is torn between wanting to change Koro's mind about her leadership abilities and accepting it when he refuses to acknowledge her. She understands where he is coming from, and why he believes what he does, but wants desperately to prove to him that she is worthy of his respect. It's a delicate balancing act, and the one on which the emotional resonance of the film hangs, but Castle-Huges nails it so perfectly that it's hard to believe this is actually her first time before a camera.
Rawiri Paratene, as Koro, faces a similar balancing act in showing both his love for Pai as well as his steadfast rejection of her as a suitable leader for the tribe. Though he initially refuses to even acknowledge her existence in the wake of her brother's death, we come to see that he loves his granddaughter dearly, but is so rigid in his cultural beliefs that accepting her as a leader just isn't an option. Paratene, a veteran Maori actor, comes off as being alternately endearing and fiercely stubborn, and the dynamic that is produced by his and Castle-Hughes' performances forms the beating heart of the picture.
The rest of the cast lends more than credible support to the Pai/Koro conflict. Cliff Curtis, as Pai's father, is probably the only actor that will be recognizable to American audiences, as he is usually resigned to playing Arab or Hispanic roles in Hollywood movies like Three Kings and Collateral Damage. Here he is able to use his real Maori roots to create the portrait of a man who loves his daughter and cherishes his tribal traditions, but is pulled away by the call of the larger world.
Mention must also be made of Vicky Haughton, as Koro's wife Nanny Flowers, who is infuriated by her husband's treatment of Pai and lets him know it whenever possible. As writer-director Niki Caro states in her commentary, this is an example of how real-life Maori women "lead from behind," in the sense of not being directly involved in the decision-making process but controlling their men from behind closed doors. Haughton comes across as both loving and spiteful, and isn't afraid to speak out against her husband's beliefs, even when they don't affect her directly. It's terrific, scene-stealing work, and she matches Paratene's maddening stubbornness at every turn.
Caro's decision to fill a good chunk of the supporting cast with Maori non-actors is a risky proposition, as it might have made parts of the film seem amateurish, but instead it only heightens the story's slice-of-life sense of reality. This is a fictional fable, but the use of real Maori people in addition to the on-location shooting make it feel almost like a documentary, and give it a grounding in reality that a Hollywood production might not have had.
How fascinating is it, then, that in a medium traditionally dominated by men, not one, but two of the best films produced in 2003 have been written and directed by women (the other is Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation)? Though female filmmakers like Julie Taymor and Kathryn Bigelow have been hanging around the fringes of Hollywood for the last two decades or so, women have never gained the kind of critical and box office recognition usually afforded to their male colleagues. Whether or not Whale Rider could have been directed by a man is a matter of some debate (the book it's based on was, in fact, penned by a man), but it goes to show that women like Niki Caro, who possess this kind of talent, can no longer be ignored by the film community.
Columbia's DVD of Whale Rider presents the film in a gorgeous anamorphic transfer that does full justice to the magnificent cinematography of D.P. Leon Narbey. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy wasn't enough to single out New Zealand as the ideal shooting location for any outdoor production, Whale Rider should cement that claim. Because the film is so recent, the source print is free of dirt, and there is very little digital artifacting or edge enhancement present. It's a beautiful transfer of a gorgeously composed film.
The film is also presented with a perfectly adequate Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that, while not providing much in the way of rear channel activity, highlights Lisa Gerrard's mesmerizing score. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also included, and the disc comes with English and Spanish subtitles.
Though it didn't do huge box office numbers, Columbia has seen fit to tag the Whale Rider DVD with the "Special Edition" moniker, and the disc is packed with enough bonus features to justify such a claim. First up is a screen-specific audio commentary with Caro, who is able to provide both insights into the film's story and motivations as well as tidbits of information about the Maori culture. Caro is somewhat soft-spoken, and her voice is so ethereal that the mind occasionally wanders, but otherwise it's a solid track.
The disc also includes eight deleted scenes that can be viewed with or without commentary from Caro and a man who one can only assume to be the film's editor, David Coulson (the disc never tells us). A number of the scenes are terrific, and Caro makes it clear in her commentary that she hated to lose them, but was forced to do so for the sake of pacing.
Also included are two featurettes, the first of which is a 25-minute overview of the production aptly titled Behind the Scenes of Whale Rider. The doc never gets too specific about the details of the production, but gives a nice sense of the community that was formed during production between the cast/crew and the Maori people. The second featurette, Te Waka: Building the Canoe is a piece that shows the construction of the canoe that plays a central role in the story. It's a good little throwaway piece, and worth a look.
The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer and five TV spots, as well as highlights from the film's soundtrack and the usual art and photo gallery. All in all, it's a great little package that doesn't go overboard with the filler material.
I can't stress enough how good this film is, and how it really needs to be seen by as wide and audience as possible. It's an intensely moving picture with a female empowerment message, but it has a universal appeal, and can be appreciated by boys and girls, both young and old alike. Columbia has given the film a lovely special edition package that is virtually free of promotional filler, and though it faces another uphill battle in the overstuffed pre-Christmas market, I'm confident that the right audience will find it.
Not guilty on all counts. Everyone involved with Whale Rider is free to go, and everyone else is urged to experience this film at their earliest possible convenience. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary from Writer-Director Niki Caro
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