Whale Rider (2003)

“Whale Rider,” the story of one girl’s coming of age, symbolizes a grander perspective on life. It is a film about belief and the evolution of tradition. The movie tackles issues of intercultural relations, sexism, and strong family bonds with compassion.
In 1987, writer Witi Ihimaera penned the novel “The Whale Rider” which told a mythological tale of the Maori (the indigenous Polynesian tribe of New Zealand). A blend of folklore and its effect on modern society, it is the story of a young girl who tries to gain the love of her grandfather as she strives to become the next leader of her tribe despite her gender. In 2003, New Zealand director Niki Caro debuted her screen adaption at the Toronto Film Festival. “Whale Rider” is a riveting visual experience of beauty, moving performances, and a story that transcends time and culture.
According to Maori mythology, it is believed that the people are the descendents of Paikea, a legendary ancestor who rode a whale from a mysterious land called Hawaiki to the place they now call home. With more than a thousand years of rich history, the tribal people of New Zealand still look to Paikea as a foundation of their origins and pay homage to him through honorary celebrations.
Flash forward to present day, a grandfather whose bloodline is directly descended from Paikea, eagerly awaits as his daughter-in-law gives birth to a first born son so he can name him the next village chief. Sadly, after giving birth to fraternal twins (a boy and a girl), she dies along with her first born son, leaving behind a daughter who cannot inherit the throne. “She’s of no use to me”, says Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a bitter grandparent whose own first born son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has turned his back on Maori tradition and flees for Europe to pursue a more cosmopolitan world leaving his daughter to be raised by her grandparents.
Twelve-year-old Paikea “Pai” (Keisha Castle-Hughes) gives a heartrending performance as the granddaughter who desperately tries to prove that, though she’s a girl, she is the rightful heir to the throne. With strength of character, Pai symbolically wears red throughout the film exhibiting her power.
Koro ignores her, and recruits a group of village boys hoping to find the appropriate male successor. Pai continuously disproves the “Sacred School of Learning” and ultimately beats the number one contender in a traditional stick fight.
Disappointed, Koro becomes even more emphatic about his inability to accept Pai, thinking that her meddling will ruin the hopes of finding the true heir. When the boys fail the final test of retrieving a whale tooth necklace that he tosses in the ocean, Koro descends in to a deep depression and sends Pai to her Uncle’s house.
Although unrecognized as a student at Koro’s school, Pai wins a regional speech writing contest and is elected to take the stage at the village school for a theatrical presentation. Hoping that her grandfather attends, Castle-Hughes breaks your heart as she delivers a speech that tells of her lineage and how she is not allowed to fulfill her destiny. As she cries seeking out her grandfather in the audience, he lays in bed at home, immobilized by despair.
With hurtful words like “You’re a girl, go to the back” etched in her mind, Pai’s determination drives her to make the ultimate sacrifice when a mysterious occurrence proves to be a potential disaster. When a large pod of whales beach themselves on the coast of the village, the community cries out believing it is a terrible omen. The villagers make feeble attempts to push the whales towards the ocean, but to no avail as the whales weaken and start to die off. “Who is to blame?” asks Koro, as he immediately assumes Pai’s interference is responsible for this tragic event.
Pai springs on to the back of one of the whales to fulfill the Paikea myth. “I wasn’t scared to die”, she says as she plunges in to the deep abyss of the ocean. As her family searches for her, Pai’s grandmother, Nanny (Vicky Haughton) places the missing whale tooth necklace in to Koro’s hands letting him know that Pai retrieved it.
Caro’s visual style shows a sense of naturalism as the backdrop of this drama, with images of verdant hills and cerulean skies, Shot on location in New Zealand, the unadulterated landscape has increased in popularity with a growing number of film shoots, such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Filmed in jewel tones of blue and green, images of whales are pictured in Pai’s subconscious, conveying the influence of ancient mythology on contemporary culture
At age 13, Castle-Hughes became the youngest to ever win an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Although her fantastic performance was well beyond her years, she lost out to Charlize Theron who won for her portrayal of real life serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. In 2005, Caro cast Theron in her film “North Country,” which depicted the account of the first sexual harassment class action suit. Castle-Hughes will be reunited with director Caro in the 2009 release of “The Vintner’s Luck” based on the novel by Elizabeth Knox that tells the life of a winemaker and his vineyard.
As the cynical grandfather, New Zealand actor Paratene gives a convincing performance as you watch his inner turmoil of seeking a chief to “lead the people out of the darkness”. Can his traditional beliefs be swayed? Maori actor, Curtis, plays a sensitive and almost cowardly father. Distracted from his tribal obligations, he pursues a relationship with a German woman and dodges familial responsibility.

Paikea             – Keisha Castle-Hughes
Koro                 – Rawiri Patene
Nanny Flowers             – Vicky Haughton
Porourangi             – Cliff Curtis

Newmarket Films (USA) & Buena Vista International (non-USA). South Pacific Pictures, AppolloMedia, Pandora Film in Association with the New Zealand Film Production Fund, New Zealand Film Commission and NZ on Air and Sponsored by Filmstiftung Nordrhein – Westfalen GmbH
Written and Directed by Niki Caro
Produced by Tim Sanders, John Barnett, Frank Hubner
Based on the book “The Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera
Executive Producers, Bill Gavin, Linda Goldstein Knowlton
Co Producer, Reinhard Brundig
Associate Producer, Witi Ihimaera
Cinematography Leon Narbey
Editing by David Coulson
Music Lisa Gerrard
Editor, David Coulson
Costume Designer, Kirsty Cameron
Director of Photography, Leon Narbey
Production Designer, Grant Major
Casting, Diana Rowan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 101 Minutes