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Movie Review

“There was no gladness when I was born. ...”

A newborn’s cry is normally a moment of utmost joy. But it wasn’t so when Pai was brought into the world. Her entrance was simultaneous with the death of her mother and twin brother. And in one fell swoop, the line of chieftains descended from Paikea was shattered. (Paikea was the man who founded the Maori race by riding a whale across the ocean to what is now New Zealand.)

Pai’s grandfather, Koro, is devastated. His heartbroken son, Porourangi, a direct descendant of Paikea, has left his land, haunted by memories of his wife and son. And without any more pure (male) Maori offspring, there’s no chance for their race to continue. So, every time Koro sees Pai—boisterous, intelligent, loving, lonely and abandoned Pai—he sees the end of his people. Because though Pai is directly descended from Paikea, she is a girl and Koro knows that a woman could never be the leader of the Maori people. ...

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Positive Elements

The need for gracious love in family relationships is emphasized by the lack of it in Pai’s life. Koro is relentlessly harsh toward her, indirectly blaming her for the fracture in the Maori lineage. Not that he hates Pai; far from it. He sticks up for her when her schoolmates tease her and regularly pedals her across the lush New Zealand countryside on his bike. But a desperate disappointment lurks at the core of their interactions. While Koro provides for his granddaughter’s basic needs, he has emotionally abandoned her. Furthermore, his pursuit of a new heir to Paikea nearly destroys his household. His obsession causes his wife to consider divorce and Pai’s spirit falters under the old man’s continual disapproval (she sobs uncontrollably after Koro doesn’t show up for a school performance). When his search for an heir fails, he retreats into his bedroom and silently wastes his days on his bed. The application is clear: Personal ambition must not trump the preservation of one’s family.

Spiritual Content

Traditional Maori spiritualism frames most of the movie’s religious content. There is much bantering about legends and chanting of tribal hymns (of which most American viewers won’t be able to understand a single word). Koro opens a school for young boys in order to instruct them in the Maori ways, hoping to find someone to continue the line of chiefs. At one point, he informs his charges that ancestral spirits are watching them. Porourangi tells Pai that Koro is looking for a prophet, a person to lead his people out of darkness. During a moment of desperation, Koro prays to the “ancient ones,” but they don’t hear him. When Pai raises her petition, however, they respond, sending a wave of whales to beach themselves on the shoreline as a test. Awaiting a person’s diagnosis at a hospital, a woman says that she has been “praying to God.” [Spoiler Warning] When Pai is recognized as the rightful chief, her mere acknowledgement mystically “renews” the Maori, bringing vigor to the ceremonies and restoration to their families.

Sexual Content

Porourangi tells his family that he has impregnated a German woman out of wedlock. Koro crudely informs young male recruits that their genitals will fall off if they don’t perform a ceremony correctly and urges them to grasp their crotches to avoid the aforementioned fate. A female character wears a tight tube top. The camera glimpses Pai’s bare back as she bathes.

Violent Content

An early scene shows the face of Pai’s mother contorted in agony during labor (other shots feature Porourangi weeping over the body of his wife). Porourangi shoves Koro when he urges him to “start over” immediately after his wife’s death. Koro lightly socks a boy in the head as he teases Pai. Koro teaches his students how to fight with staves and duels with one of the youngsters. Angry at Pai, Koro violently strikes the dinner table, breaking a dish. Pai and a boy fight with staffs. A whale stranded on a beach perishes. There are a few tense moments when it’s thought that a person has drowned.

Crude or Profane Language

One use of the s-word and one use of “d--n.” About eight other crudities crop up, three of which are slang terms for male sex organs.

Drug and Alcohol Content

When Pai catches her grandmother, Nanny Flowers, and her card-playing friends smoking, she chastises them, saying that they’ve “got to protect [their] child-bearing properties.” When Pai leaves the room, one of the women jests, “You’d have to be smoking in a pretty funny place to wreck the child-bearing properties.” Pai also chastises one of her young friends for lighting up. Pai’s uncle naps with a pot pipe and a large bag of weed on his lap. His friends regularly drink beer. Thugs cruising in a car smoke.

Other Negative Elements

During a school performance a prankster loudly breaks wind while onstage.

Conclusion

Whale Rider is essentially about leadership and the fact that leadership presents itself in the form of a young girl,” states its director, Niki Caro. Such feminist sentiments certainly inhabit the movie, but they’re not forceful by any means. Pai’s claim to the position of Maori chief has less to do with female empowerment than being recognized for who she is by her grandfather—and be subsequently loved. Still, care should be taken to compare and contrast the way the movie handles the role of women with that established in Scripture.

That said, Whale Rider has next to no plot. Its fixation on myths indigenous to New Zealand lends a bizarre, ethereal otherworldliness. And its characters speak in Maori almost as much as they do in English. With such a unique (read: nearly DOA, commercially speaking) premise, why is the slow, sleepy Whale Rider lauded by critics and audiences alike? Some of that praise is doubtlessly due to the noteworthy performance of newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes. It’s compelling to watch her (as Pai) bear the oddly interconnected burdens of being simultaneously spurned by her relatives and fiercely embraced in love. Perhaps it's so absorbing because we understand being unable to love those we ought as we ought; we curse and yet our bent hearts still care. It stokes our empathy not only for those around us, but for the whole of broken humanity as well.

Whale Rider deserves a little less praise, though, for its legitimization of ancestor worship. It might be tempting to brush aside the religious elements as mere cultural homage. But they’re more than that. Pai and Koro’s piety for “the ancients” and their predecessor, Paikea, brings about real, lasting change in their community—mysterious, mystical and definitely unorthodox change.

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