Whale Rider (2002) starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa directed by Niki Caro Movie Review

Whale Rider (2002)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea in Whale Rider

A Whale of a Time

"Whale Rider" is the sort of movie you need to get your hands on when you are tired and frustrated by modern mainstream cinema being all the same. Here we have a movie about a Maori girl and her battle to prove herself right to become the next leader in face of tradition and a grandfather whose stubbornness causes upset. It's not a complex movie, in fact "Whale Rider" is simple, but it is also honest and beautiful allowing us to fall in love with the New Zealand location whilst appreciating the real battle for these Maori people to keep traditions intact in an evolving world.

Years of tradition decree that the male first born to Whangara chiefs will become next in line. But when current chief Koro's (Rawiri Paratene) son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis - Collateral Damage) loses his wife and one of his twins during child birth it leaves his first born a girl who he names Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes). Disillusioned and distraught Porourangi leaves the community threatening years of tradition and causing Koro not only to raise Paikea but to try and pick a leader from other male first borns in the village. But Paikea deep down believes she is rightfully next in line and whilst she loves her grandfather must fight tradition to make him approve of her.

Rawiri Paratene as Koro in Whale Rider

So I mentioned that "Whale Rider" is a simple movie and it is no word of a lie. After a quick opening we not only learn all about the Maori tradition of male first borns becoming the next tribe leader we also see next in line Porourangi not only lose his wife but one of his twins during child birth leaving a baby girl as his first born. And add to that we see Porourangi leave the tribe, hurt and frustrated by his father's determination to keep up the blood line and disapproval of his daughter Paikea.

After the quick and effective opening we get the main storyline which takes on two elements young Paikea feeling that she is the rightful next leader, something deep within her making her feel this way. And then there is her grandfather's constant disapproval and disappointment that she is a girl and his stubbornness in keeping up the tradition that a male first born take on the mantle of chief. As such we watch her grandfather cling to tradition, trying to teach the male first borns of the village how to be warriors and leaders whilst Paikea trains in secret whilst desperate to get his approval.

The simplicity of "Whale Rider" is one of the reasons why it is so wonderful, it doesn't try to complicate matters just delivers this honest look at how the changing world and tradition collide in the Maori culture. You can feel for both sides as we watch Paikea believe she is the right person to be the next leader whilst Koro desperately tries to keep tradition going, fearing failure if he doesn't. In fact you can really sense that fear of failure in the depression which Koro slumps into through frustration.

Now for a movie made outside of Hollywood you may wonder whether it will look tacky or be it poorly acted, fear not because not only is "Whale Rider" beautiful it is brilliantly acted. Again it is that honesty which shines through and if you didn't know better you would say that Rawiri Paratene who plays Koro was a Maori leader and at the same time you wouldn't disbelieve Cliff Curtis as his son Porourangi who has abandoned his position. And as for young Keisha Castle-Hughes who plays Paikea not only does she deliver the playfulness of a young child but also the confidence of a child who believes in them self yet at the same time is desperate for her grandfathers approval.

Add to this the magnificent New Zealand scenery and some brilliant scenes featuring whales which mix puppetry, CGI and real footage and "Whale Rider" simply carries you off and into this world.

What this all boils down to is that "Whale Rider" is a thing of beauty from the simple but honest storyline through to the wonderful acting and beautiful locations. It draws you into this other world where tradition and the evolving world collide and fills you with warmth as we watch Paikea fight not just to be the next leader but for her grandfather's approval.