U.S. Release Date: June 6, 2003
Distributor: Newmarket
Director: Niki Caro
Writer: Niki Caro
Running Time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (brief language and a momentary drug reference)

A Whale of a Tale
by C.A. Wolski

A lot has been written about the strong family message in Whale Rider, and there is no mistaking that this story of intergenerational love and conflict is, on the surface, about the mending of a broken family, but there is another aspect that hasn't been written about—or at least only touched on—and that's the movie's theme. It isn't about family or even the need to honor the hand in glove relationship of tradition and progress. At root,Whale Rider is one of the best pictures about leadership that has been made in years, a movie that many of our corporate and political leaders would do well to make a beeline to see.

Whale Rider follows the struggles of young Pai (newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes) to win the love and respect of her gruff and continually disappointed grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene). A member of a fiercely proud and ancient Maori tribe, Pai—through a tragic twist of fate—has broken the unbroken line of male firstborn children, and hence cannot inherit the leadership of the tribe from her grandfather.

As a compromise, Koro gathers all of the firstborn male children and begins instructing them in the ancient ways. Pai secretly learns the lessons as well, first by spying on her grandfather and later with the help of her "second born son" uncle (Grant Roa). It becomes apparent quite quickly to everyone except her grandfather that Pai is more than worthy to take on the mantle of leadership. How she finally proves that is in a daring act of bravery that pushes the movie into the realm of the mythic. Along the way, Koro learns a valuable lesson that leadership has nothing to do with birth order or gender, mending the family, the tribe, and—quite literally—the world.

Though the quasi-mystical elements such as Pai's ability to call the tribe's beloved whales and the girl power subtext are strongly evident, this is not New Age claptrap. Instead it transcends these elements and moves into the mythic, which gives the movie a timeless feel. Sure these are Maoris in modern day New Zealand, but they could very well be Laplanders or Masai or Kansans. The values that Whale Rider addresses—leadership, love, loyalty—are universal and cross all cultural lines.

And though the older folks in the audience will appreciate the subtle nature of the script, the more conventional elements of a family in turmoil will appeal as well. This is a family that loves each other, but needs to learn to understand each other's strengths. The scene when Pai's errant father comes home and greets Koro is as tender as it is violently dramatic.

The acting is flawless, particularly Paratene and Castle-Hughes, who deftly shifts from a wise would-be adult to a vulnerable little girl with an ease that is almost chilling. It is a joy to watch both of them, particularly in their scenes together.

This is not to say Whale Rider is without its faults. It is about a reel too long, and the scene near the climax that has Pai reciting a speech about how the Maori should modernize their ways is a bit too sophisticated and heavy handed in light of what is to come, which illustrates her point without having to say it.

But that said, this is a movie that will uplift, inspire, and, yes, even bring a tear or two to your eye.

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