While the themes found in “Whaler Rider”—the old ways versus the new, acceptance of girls as equals to boys—aren’t new, the context certainly is, and that’s what really makes this film special. Maori are so little-seen in movies (Temuera Morrison’s role as Jango Fett in “Attack of the Clones” is probably the most prominent one for a Maori actor), and Maori culture is so little-known to those of us not in New Zealand, that much of this film’s freshness comes from seeing what most of us have not seen before.
“Whale Rider” tells the story of Paikea “Pai” Apirana (Keisha Castle-Hughes), whose mother and twin brother died in childbirth. Her brother, the first-born of that generation, was supposed to succeed her grandfather as tribal chief, but his death throws the whole plan off and angers her grandfather, Koro, who becomes even angrier because of her name. You see, 1,000 years ago Paikea was the first to arrive at this remote seaside village (one wonders what their real estate would be worth if they were anywhere else in the world), riding the back of a whale, and Koro insists that only a boy can bear his name and eventually become tribal chief.
Stubborn in his views, Koro sets up a school to teach the local boys the old ways and create a competition out of which one will emerge as the new chief. Pai watches from the periphery, imitating what she sees and eventually enlisting her uncle to teach her a few things. With her father in Germany, Koro is her only real father figure, but their relationship is often strained by the situation. You can genuinely tell that Koro loves his granddaughter, however, which introduces an extra layer to the film. Voice-over delivered by Castle-Hughes, who is a wonderful find with a bright future if she wants to keep acting, helps fill in some of the gaps, although the alien nature of Maori culture may put you off a bit at first. For example, the traditional nose-to-nose male Maori greeting seems odd when you first see it, and no one really explains what it is, so you have to figure it out.
By the end of the film, we’ve experienced the uplifting climax you knew was coming. I wish we had seen the father’s role in the film wrapped up a little better, however: the visuals insinuate one thing, but we don’t really have the closure there that I would have liked. While much of the story is predictable, the unique nature of Maori life, coupled with spectacular visuals and solid acting, helps “Whale Rider” rise above cliché. I’ve read comments to the effect that the “girl power” theme is the result of Europeans grafting their sensibilities on another culture, but given that so many involved with this film were Maori (including the guy who wrote the “Whale Rider” novel)—except director Niki Caro, who’s a Kiwi—I’m not sure that’s fair. It seems to me that these gender and generational conflicts can easily happen in any culture.
The extras on this DVD shed more light on Maori culture, starting with a commentary from the director that shows the genuine warmth she has for these people. It’s a track worth listening to if you’d like to know a little more about the location where the film was made, which is an actual Maori village that contributed many of its people to play extras and small roles, as well as the changes made from book to screen. You can also hear her and novelist Witi Ihimaera expand on the reasons why the eight deleted scenes were cut from the film; it seems to me that a couple of them could have stayed, considering that they add some depth to the relationships.
A half-hour documentary, “Behind the Scenes of Whale Rider,” gives us the usual “Why we did this film” spiel, although it digs a bit deeper than typical EPK material and offers some intriguing informational tidbits, as does the 10-minute “Te Waka: Building the Canoe,” which delves into the creation of the most important prop in the movie. You can also check out the theatrical trailer, five TV spots, isolated selections from the score, and a brief photo gallery.
In sum, this was a movie that obviously didn’t do enough business to warrant a big two-disc set overflowing with extras, so it’s nice that Columbia TriStar put a few bucks into this release. “Whale Rider” is worth it, and I’d say this film is worth a rental at minimum.