- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

Designed to be an inspirational fable about family and tribal regeneration, set among contemporary Maori villagers in a seacoast community on New Zealand’s North Island, “Whale Rider” is the work of an obviously sincere but sometimes absent-minded and stilted novice director, Niki Caro, not herself a Maori. It derives from what I assume was a juvenile best seller, written by Witi Ihimaera, reputed to be the first Maori novelist published in New Zealand.

The prologue depicts a catastrophic childbirth, leading to the death of the mother and one of her twins, a male who would have inherited a royal lineage in the Ngati Konohi tribe. The presiding patriarch, Koro, embodied with mulish authority by Rawiri Paratene, has a bitter maternity ward encounter with his son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), the grief-stricken spouse of the ill-fated mother. The surviving twin, a girl named Paikea, ultimately Pai for short, is left in the care of her paternal grandparents when Porourangi departs in shock and fury, rather like Apu at the midway point of Satyajit Ray’s “The World of Apu.”

The chronicle resumes 12 years later. Porourangi, a professional artist, returns for a visit from extended exile in Germany, but he has no intention of remaining. He spends a bit of time with the winsome Pai, portrayed by Keisha Castle-Hughes, but he seems committed to a German consort, now pregnant. Initially embittered by his son’s refusal to embrace a traditional role and destiny, Koro is also unwilling to envision Pai as a legitimate heir, since she is not a male. He has begun a training workshop devoted to familiarizing adolescent boys with tribal traditions, in hopes of reviving warrior mythology and virtue, but he adamantly refuses to admit Pai.

Nevertheless, it’s pretty clear that the genetic and psychic jests will be on grandpa, since Pai shares close emotional affinities. In addition to being the most willing of disciples, she may be the most adept physical specimen in her junior chieftain age group.

She proves the bravest by risking her life to realize an ancient legend: That the tribe will be redeemed when a whale appears and is ridden by a true heir. Or in this case a solemn combination of true heiress and little mermaid. As a matter of fact, it would be easy to conclude that the sacrifice had also led to a fatal drowning from prolonged submersion, but expedient miracle-working seems to liberate Pai from mortal liabilities. Ultimately, the insistence on girl empowerment raised to supernatural hokum tends to clash with the story’s disarming and realistic aspects, which provide welcome comic relief from mystical soul-searching and speculation.

For example, it’s a kick that many of the boys in Koro’s class seem to find the old taskmaster a bit cracked and obsolete. There are quite a few hang-loose Maoris on the periphery, and it might be edifying to find out a bit more about how they get along and what the village economy is like. Folks seem to be a little short of boats when it would be helpful to ferry a batch of beached whales out to sea.

When the men are rigged out in a replica of a war canoe near the finale, I feared that I might have dozed through informative episodes about the popularity of Maori re-enactor clubs in New Zealand. Grandpa Koro couldn’t be single-handedly responsible for all this enthusiasm. Do competing villages send out rowers to stage mock battles? I’d like to think so.

The only genuinely magical moments cling to landscapes and seascapes. There’s one particularly breathtaking image of cloud formations enhanced by Magic Hour backlighting. Despite the scenic amplitude of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” spectacles, “Whale Rider” demonstrates that many scenic corners of New Zealand remain to be exploited for both naturalistic and poetic advantage. Miss Caro’s bid for transcendent affirmation gets lost somewhere in the gap between impressive backgrounds and ramshackle myth-mongering.

*1/2

TITLE: “Whale Rider”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting episodes of intense family conflict; sustained ominous elements that place a child in jeopardy; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Niki Caro. Screenplay by Miss Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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