Whale Rider

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

WHALE RIDER

5/10

New Zealand (NZ/UK/Ger) 2002 : Niki CARO : 101 mins

Whale Rider has won audience awards at major film festivals all over the world – and it isn’t hard to see why. This is an entertaining, well-acted, gently uplifting parable of a movie with mild touches of exotica, mysticism and social conscience – just the sort of thing to work like a charm on packed cinemas full of receptive viewers. On closer reflection, however, it’s very hard to get very enthusiastic about what is fundamentally a very old-fashioned kind of crowd-pleaser, predictable and conventional in form and content, with some troubling problems at its core.

The coastal Maori community depicted in the film isn’t just experiencing a social, cultural and economic crisis – this is, for them, nothing less than a full-blown “dark age”. And the only hope lies in an ancient prophecy foretelling the arrival of a messiah known as Paikea, whose miraculous feat of whale-riding will herald a golden new dawn.

According to hereditary principles, the next incarnation of Paikea is supposedly the male child born to Porurangi (Cliff Curtis), son of chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene). The pregnancy doesn’t go according to divine plan, however: twins are conceived, one of each sex, and when the mother dies during childbirth only the female infant survives. But Porurangi goes ahead and names the girl Paikea anyway – outraging the fiercely traditionalist Koro.

A dozen or so years later, Porurangi has moved to Germany where he makes Maori art, leaving Paikea in the care of Koro and wife Flowers (Vicky Haughton). As she approaches adolescence, Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) becomes convinced that she can fulfil the hopes which apparently died with her twin. But the stubborn Koro isn’t convinced: instead he concentrates on training the village’s boys in the “old ways” of their warrior ancestors, blindly ignoring the resilient Paikea’s precocious, possibly even supernatural talents.

During the warrior training, viewers may experience a sudden jolt of dj vu: substitute ballet for Maori swordsmanship, and switch the sexes around, and the parallel should become clear – Whale Rider is a very close antipodean cousin to Billy Elliot, another enjoyable but shamelessly manipulative tale of a young, oddly desexualised teenager who must overturn gender prejudices in an isolated, economically depressed seaside community. Come to think of it, we aren’t a million miles away from Bend It Like Beckham, either.

And just as the front-and-centre talents of Jamie Bell and Parminder K Nagra made Billy and Beckham hard to dislike, Castle-Hughes is by far the most persuasive aspect of Whale Rider: a real find, her Paikea is both convincingly indomitable and sympathetically vulnerable, especially in her clashes with the rather excessively hard-asses Koro. But Caro is no more imaginative or innovative as a director than Billy Elliot‘s Stephen Daldry or Beckham‘s Gurinder Chadha – it’s savagely ironic that this film, which is supposedly such a celebration of Maori culture, should be made so squarely within the established storytelling conventions of northern-hemisphere ‘inspirational’ movies.

The fact that Caro’s bland style owes so much to established ‘foreign’ forebears, meanwhile, makes it a bit rich for Whale Rider to portray the decline of the community by showing a bunch of beer-swilling layabouts in a car listening to pounding US rap. This is a poor substitute for a proper presentation of the issues behind the community’s crisis – and to suggest that these problems can only be alleviated by a messianic figure seems nave at best, dangerous at worst. At the end of the film, we see that Porurangi has returned home, bringing with him his German wife – implying that Paikea’s whale-riding has somehow kick-started a wholesale (but implausible) cultural and economic revival, and a reversal of the Maori diaspora.

Even worse is the film’s unthinking assertion that Paikea’s talents are the result of her genetic inheritance. She’s thus a cousin of Anakin and Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, not to mention Harry Potter. Isn’t it bizarre that, in the early days of the 21st century, we should be so accepting, welcoming even, of modern myths that place so much emphasis on the discredited principles of heredity. At least Billy Elliot, Beckham‘s Jess (and, indeed the Kiwi-filmed Lord of the Rings Frodo) achieve what they do because of talent and hard work – no matter how talented or hard-working the boys in Koro’s warrior-skills academy turn out to be, Whale Rider makes it clear this counts for little in comparison with Paikea’s mystical ancestry and pre-ordained role.

Such issues make it very hard to go along with the inspirational rush delivered by the whale-riding climax, which features a couple of genuinely amazing underwater shots. It doesn’t help the storytelling goes a little fuzzy at a crucial late stage, when a school of whales are washed up (why?) on the community’s beach, setting up Paikea’s heroic feats. These ‘whales’ are apparently fake, but certainly don’t look it on-screen – many viewers may be distracted and concerned by what appears to be the suffering of actual creatures, whales not being exactly the most biddable of ‘performers’.

The success of Whale Rider at film festivals, however, does indicate that many viewers are willing to forgive, overlook or simply reject the problems mentioned above: the performances, ‘ethnic’ setting and attention to detail make it easy to swallow what in a British movie would probably be derided as fishy, new-agey mysticism in the Heathcote Williams Whale Nation mode. This is clearly a film with its heart in the right place – what a shame its brain has so much in common with that of Paikea’s cetacean chums.

9th July, 2003
(seen 5th June: Showcase, Dudley)

click here for the full-length version of this review.

by Neil Young