`Whale Rider’ rises above its simple story line | AspenTimes.com

`Whale Rider’ rises above its simple story line

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

“Whale Rider” is a story we’ve seen before. In fact, it’s a few stories we’ve seen before. It’s the story of a native culture coming to terms with the modernization of its community. It’s also the story of a girl overcoming the disadvantages of not being born a boy. To put it in the language of a Hollywood pitch, it’s “The Gods Must Be Crazy” meets “Working Girl,” but without the humor and set among the Maori tribe of New Zealand.

“Whale Rider,” though, written and directed by Niki Caro – a woman – and adapted from the book by Witi Ihimaera, rises above cliches for the most part. While the ending is practically a given from the opening scene – it wouldn’t be giving away much if “Whale Rider” were subtitled, “A Girl Triumphs in a Man’s World” – the film sets itself apart in most every other way. The characters are taken to the extremes. The scenes are taken from everyday Maorian life, which is not exactly standard Hollywood stuff. And if the ending is obvious, the way the film arrives there is not.

One of the things that gives “Whale Rider” its richness is that there are two simultaneous protagonists (and thus doesn’t fulfill the usual expectation that a movie focus on one thing, lest it confuse the viewer).

The more obvious center of the film is Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl whose mother and twin brother died in childbirth. Pai’s grandfather is the current chief. Her artist father, Porourangi, isn’t up to taking over the position, as tradition would mandate, especially after the tragedy of losing his wife and son. Pai quickly demonstrates she has the gravitas necessary to be a leader. In an early scene, she reprimands her grandmother and two other older ladies for smoking cigarettes: “Maorian women have to protect their child-bearing properties,” she scolds. Pai believes, knows in her bones, that she should be her grandfather’s successor. But the position of tribal chief has never been for a girl.

Pai’s grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), doesn’t just represent the obstacle Pai must hurdle. Koro is a fully fleshed-out character – stubborn, and forceful, with a raspy voice and an arrogance that is downright frightening when he is threatened. Koro teaches the sacred ways of the Maori – their chants, battle techniques, and the legends of their ancestors. Pai, of course, is barred from these all-male sessions. But encouraged by her grandmother (Vicky Haughton), who is as forceful in her way as Koro, Pai learns the sacred ways behind her grandfather’s back.

Koro is the more interesting of the two characters. Pai’s situation is clear: she must convince her grandfather that she is the most worthy successor to his position. But Koro’s place in the world is more subtle. He is preparing the village children for battle by teaching them to fight with sticks, while he is hopelessly alienated from every member of his own family. He hasn’t realized that the greatest threat to the tribe is not some outside enemy, but the breakdown of the family.

In its way, “Whale Rider” is too neatly packaged. Both Koro and Pai must sink to their respective depths before her grandfather accepts her worthiness. At other times, though, the film is unique: In how many films does a young girl establish her courage and power by coaxing a whale off the beach and riding it into the ocean?

And how many PG-13 films – and “Whale Rider” is actually perfectly suitable for children younger than 13 – could win the audience awards for most popular film at both the Toronto and Sundance film festivals, which is just what “Whale Rider” did?

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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