On the east coast of New Zealand, the Whangara people believe their presence there dates back a thousand years or more to a single ancestor, Paikea, who escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale. From then on, Whangara chiefs, always the first-born, always male, have been considered Paikea's direct descendants. Pai, an 11-year-old girl in a patriarchal New Zealand tribe, believes she is destined to be the new chief. But her grandfather Koro is bound by tradition to pick a male leader. Pai loves Koro more than anyone in the world, but she must fight him and a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her destiny.
The stoic mysticism of Niki Caro's cool-handed, New Zealand-set charmer, in which Pai, a young Maori, has to overcome resistance to her assuming her familial destiny as the leader of her tribe, is wickedly absorbing. Much of its power comes from the delicate charisma of Keisha Castle-Hughes, making her acting debut as Pai. Her instinctive underplaying gives the film an added gravity, with the lush remoteness serving as an entrancing contrast to the sugar-rush, you-go-girl empowerment of programmed pandering like "The Lizzie McGuire Movie." Each shot of the vistas in the breathtakingly lovely village where "The Whale Rider" takes place is presented with an even clarity, with the director and her cinematographer, Leon Narbey, leaving it to viewers to be seduced by its daunting power rather than overwhelming them with it. — Elvis Mitchell
2003-06-06 | Elvis Mitchell | Read the New York Times Review of Whale Rider