Tired of films with few virtues beyond stuff blowin’ up good? Looking for a film that adds elements of the mythic to everyday life, instead of a bloated myth that add characters emotionally unlike anyone who ever existed? Check out Whale Rider, inspired by Witi Ihimaera’s novel (which may be purchased from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca)


Whale Rider tells the story of 12-year-old Pai, whose gender brings her into conflict with her grandfather, a Maori chief seeking an heir. While it has been marketed as a family film, it never panders to children.

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Director: Niki Caro

Writers: Niki Caro, Witi Ihimaera.

Cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicki Haughton, Grant Roa.

High Points:

Keisha Castle-Hughes as Pai steals every scene in which she appears, without grandstanding or chewing scenery. Rawiri Paratene works equally well as Koro, the traditionalist grandfather.

The film has thematic statements to make, but it allows its audience to think, and its characters to retain their essential nobility.

Low Points:

The film’s pacing lags slightly, even for a character film.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 Certain elements– the archetypal hero who appears in unexpected guise, the folklore that proves true, the strong female who comes of age in a traditional society– have been used before. Their context here, the Maori’s world, will be original to most viewers as it was to me.

Effects: 6/6. The few effects serve the story, and have been seemlessly integrated. We gave them no thought until we started discussing the film.

Story: 5/6: This intergenerational conflict takes us into the life of an entire, believable community. I can’t say I wasn’t expecting the ending, but the twists which take us there are not always predictable.

Acting: 6/6. The entire cast act in a natural and realistic manner. Given that many in the supporting cast were residents of the village where Whale Rider was filmed, they do extraordinarily well. I could award the acting a 5/6, but the central performances more than compensate for occasional weaknesses in the supporting cast.

Production: 6/6

Emotional Response: 6/6 The rationalist in me would like to scoff at the mythic ending– but metaphor can be important. We aren’t just bags of carbon; we are also what we believe in. The film should make you feel that much.

Overall: 5/6

In total, Whale Rider receives 38/42.

Additional Comments:

New Zealand has represented magical worlds before, from Tolkien’s Middle Earth to Xena’s Greece. It’s nice to see it representing New Zealand, in a film which makes use of indigenous mythic traditions.