A review of “Whale Rider” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ****

Rating: PG-13 for adult themes

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes



Sweet mysticism pervades every frame of this beautifully constructed coming-of-age tale that catches a one-two punch from a generous measure of feminism.

The Ngati Konohi tribe of Eastern New Zealand is rich with culture, a reality foremost in the thoughts of formidable Whangara village chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene).  When twin grandchildren are born to Koro’s son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), Koro assumes that the male child is the next descendent of Paikea, the legendary ancestor who rode into the village on the back of a fabled whale.  But the baby boy dies shortly thereafter, leaving in his wake a dead mother, a grieving father, and the girl child Pai, named for the tribe’s venerated ancestor in a shocking break with Maori tradition.

Porourangi abruptly abandons New Zealand to seek his destiny abroad, leaving Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) behind in the care of her no-nonsense grandparents.  Pai’s strong sense of spirit and union with the ancient traditions is clouded by her grandfather’s lingering disdain for her gender. Koro ultimately gives up the dream of his eldest son returning to the fold, endeavoring instead to tutor the local boys in the ancient customs while praying for a worthy successor. 

Pai absorbs the mythical legends from the sidelines when Koro declares that girls are forbidden from entering the pantheon of leaders.  Bolstered by the unconditional love of her shrewd grandmother (Vicky Haughton as Nanny Flowers) and a sympathetic uncle, Pai continues her indomitable quest for her grandfather’s acceptance while defying the odds to achieve her improbable destiny.

Unlike its bleak Maori cousin “Once Were Warriors”, “Whale Rider” addresses the evils of cultural assimilation with poignant optimism.  Even its most manipulative moments are pregnant with emotion, merging fantasy and reality into a contemporary morality tale.

  The rhythms of traditional Maori are offset by the extravagant beauty of the New Zealand countryside -- bold and breathtaking imagery. Castle-Hughes is a 12-year old wonder; vulnerable, direct, and coolly in touch with her inner female.  Her unflagging spirit in the face of staggering personal hardship (and infuriating chauvinism) resonates with eloquent inspiration.