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Seldom does the success of a movie rest entirely on such tiny, talented shoulders as does "Whale Rider" with those of Keisha Castle-Hughes. This young lady, who was only 11 years old when this movie was made, dominates the screen with such a magnetic and charismatic presence that you are drawn into her every thought and emotion. She is just fabulous and I can only hope that her talent will be recognized when the Oscar nominations are announced next January.

An odd footnote is that she was discovered in a New Zealand grade school by the same talent scout who discovered Anna Paquin, the young girl who won an Oscar for her role in "The Piano"(1993).

"Whale Rider" has been a phenomenal art house success after receiving thunderous applause and ovations at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. This adulation is warranted in my opinion, but I must add that this movie will not please all tastes, especially those who look for a little more action in their cinematic fare.

At almost two hours in length, it has to be admitted that this movie does drag in parts. The emotional setup takes quite a while as the conflict between an obviously talented young girl and her obdurate grandfather, a chief of a Maori clan living in a small, down at its heels coastal community in New Zealand, is represented in great detail. We in the theater might have wanted to take this male chauvinist pig of a man outside and whack him on the side of his head long before life does the same.

"Whale Rider," to its credit, spends a lot of time introducing the ancient customs of the Maori, who originally had sailed from Hawaii to find a new life in the islands of New Zealand. The name of the movie comes from Paikea, an early Maori chieftain who had led them to this new land and was famous for having ridden a whale. As simple fishermen, the whale figures prominently in the lore of the Maori. When the whales leave, the fruits of fishing often leave with them, and when they are swimming past the shoreline of the Maori village, life is considered to be abundantly blessed and bountiful.

Those who are deeply rooted in the liberated Americanized customs of today may find the customs of these simple people to be rather illogical, perhaps even nonsensical. And most women and many of us men will find the lowly relegation of women in this male dominated society to be a waste of the readily available talents of the Maori females, who are little used for more than cooking and housekeeping.

Fortunately, this movie is about Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), who is about to change all that.

This is her story, and a beautiful one it is, an uplifting story that should be seen by everyone, but especially by young girls. It is truly a shame that this movie, which ought to be seen by every young girl, will only play in a few hundred theaters while millions of other young girls, along with their brothers, will flock to see cinematic dreck like the latest Rugrats movie.

The emotional payoff and the rich ending of this film provide more than an ample reward for anyone lucky enough to see this movie.

Little Pai is so good that our hearts beat with hers, our tears flow with hers, and our spirits finally soar with hers when an unusual and a highly original occurrence lifts her out of her chains of male bondage into the much deserved limelight as the spirited and truly deserving new chieftain of her Maori tribe.

"Whale Rider" opens in tragedy as a set of twins are born to the son of a Maori chieftain. One of the babies is a boy and the other is a girl. Tragically, both the boy and his mother die due to the difficulties of childbirth, leaving the grandfather with the bitter taste of being cursed at this sad turn of events. He had long hoped for a male heir, a grandson whom he could raise to be the new chief of the Maori. Now he is left with nothing but a useless granddaughter.

Porourangi decides to name his surviving daughter "Pai," after Paikea, that famous chieftain of ancient times. This decision causes no small amount of consternation to his father, who considers giving a girl this name to be an act of great sacrilege.

The grandfather, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), has two adult sons. Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), the elder son and presumed heir to the mantle of the tribal chief, has disavowed any interest in following in the footsteps of his father. He later leaves New Zealand and moves to Germany to become a very talented artist of Maori native pieces. This occupation gives little comfort to his father, who is left to raise the unwanted granddaughter with the help of his wife.

The younger son, Rawiri (Grant Roa), has been cast aside by his father as being merely the second son. By the time his older brother has disavowed his father's calling, it is far too late for Rawiri to step into those empty shoes. He has been snubbed too long and thus has little desire to go through the rigorous paces of a chief-in-training, even though he had a natural talent for the martial aspects of the job. This would later come in very handy when he uses these talents to teach Pai what her grandfather will not, which are the traditions, fights, and songs to lead the Maori people on to victory in battle and future good times.

Koro is not a bad grandfather to little Pai. He does love her in his own way, and he takes the time out every day to give her a lift to and from school on his bicycle. Like all men with a dream, he has blinders on, and he can't see how blessed he is to have such an extraordinary granddaughter.

Fortunately, he has a wife who does. Koro's wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton), dotes on little Pai and is always pulling for her to succeed. Even when Pai comes in and chastises Nanny and her friends for smoking cigarettes while playing an afternoon game of cards. They quickly douse the cigarettes and take breath mints before Koro walks in, but Pai knows all too well what they have been doing.

Porourangi later returns home from Germany for an infrequent visit and one evening he sets up a slide show of his works of art. Koro shows up late because he has gone to pick up the very pretty school teacher in the hopes of having her become romantically involved with his son. Those blinders have him hoping for another grandson and chief in training.

When asked to back the slides up to the beginning, Porourangi makes the critical mistake of going too far, and a picture of him with a very pretty young German woman appears on the wall. It turns out that she is not only his girlfriend and lover, but that she is pregnant as well. "When were you going to tell me this?" Koro demands of his son while the poor teacher sinks into her chair in shame and disappointment and embarrassment. Like all children, he was going to, but the right time never came up.

Porourangi offers to take Pai back to Germany with him, and she agrees to go. While on the road to the airport, however, Pai sees several whales swimming off shore and she realizes that her destiny, no matter how difficult it might be, is to remain in New Zealand in the care of her grandparents rather than to go off to Germany with her father.

With all hope of a hereditary chieftain now gone, Koro sends out a call to all the male children of the village to apply for the job of an apprentice chieftain i
n training. The few young men who answer the call look none too excited about the rigors of training. Like lazy teenagers everywhere, they will give it a shot to see if it works for them. None of them have the ancient Maori songs and the enchanting calls to the whales engraved on their hearts as does young Pai.

Their training begins and Pai tries harder to eavesdrop in on their instructions than they do in taking the lessons. When caught, as she often is, Koro shows more resignation than anger at this willful, child, a girl, no less, who will not obey his orders. Fortunately, Pai has her Uncle Rawiri to turn to for help her in her lessons. He is more than eager to help another who has been cast down even more than himself by the same person, his own father. Retribution is more than sweet when Pai takes on the most talented of the young warriors in training and cleans his clock in a battle of the sticks right before the horrified eyes of Koro.

The quality of the spirit is what matters most to a chieftain, and this is decided by who will dive in to find the sacred carved whale's tooth that Koro has worn for decades around his neck. Casually tossing it from a motorboat into a bed of kelp off a lovely cliff shore, Koro challenges the young men to dive in and find it for him. Whoever does will be the new chieftain.

Koro is quickly broken hearted when none of the young men can find his sacred necklace. Try as they might, they just cannot dive deep enough to find the necklace. Koro returns home, a picture of abject depression, to his very saddened wife.

Things have not gone well for the Maori village for many years. Koro believes that the luck of the village turned when Pai was born (and her twin brother died), and this has been another reason for him to treat her with some diffidence, if not outright rejection. Now it appears that the village will be left without a chief to guide it when he dies. His is the picture of despair.

Pai talks her Uncle Rawiri into taking her out to the area where Koro had tossed his sacred whale tooth necklace overboard. As she does possess the requisite spirit that the boys do not have, she is able to dive in and not only find Koro's necklace buried in the bed of kelp but also to capture a tasty lobster in the process. When she returns home she gives both to Nanny, but Nanny decides that the time is not yet right for her to tell her husband of Pai's successful endeavor. After all, he is still wearing those male blinders...

Like all schools everywhere, there comes a time for the annual school play of songs and skits for the benefit of the parents. Pai saves two seats in the front row for Nanny and Koro, the latter of whom does not show up right away. Pai is not worried as she has faith that her grandfather, whom she really does love and admire, will come after all.

The kids sing their Maori songs and play their Maori skits, but to Nanny's great surprise Pai is later singled out by the teacher for having won an award for her special presentation. It is to be an ode to her grandfather, Koro, and to the great traditions of the Maori people. Little Pai is all dressed up with Maori paint on her face as she launches into her very loving tribute.

Unfortunately, that chair in the front row next to Nanny is still empty. Our hearts break with Pai as she struggles through her special Maori song, her labor of love for her grandfather, Koro, the chief of her people. Tears stream down her cheeks as she chokes trying to get all the words out correctly. She had so much wanted to impress her grandfather. She was so sure that he would be there, that he would come, but he hasn't...

The truth of the matter is that Koro had actually intended to come to see his granddaughter in the play, but while walking along the beach towards the school he is horrified to see several whales stranded on the sandy seashore. This is the worst of omens for the Maori people.

The bad news quickly spreads and the entire village comes down to the beach to help rescue the stranded whales by covering them with wet cloths and throwing water on them to keep their skins moist. There are four smaller whales and one much larger whale, perhaps a mother to the others.

When daybreak arrives Koro decides to concentrate on the largest whale, and he gets the whole village to help rope the tail of this whale in an effort to turn it around as the tide comes in so that it can swim out to sea. Their efforts are for naught as the rope breaks and the huge whale remains stranded.

Pai had remained up in the old dilapidated Maori outrigger boat quietly singing her song to the whales. Koro and his fellow villagers leave the beach even more dejected than before as everything that they have tried to do to rescue their beloved whales has failed.

Walking away with heads bowed in defeat, they fail to see Pai run up to the large whale and climb up on top and once again sing her song of encouragement. The whale's spout blows and it suddenly swings into action, its tale flipping its huge bulk around to meet the incoming tide. The whale swims out to sea with little Pai riding it just as her ancestor, Paikea, had done.

Alerted to this activity, the entire village is witness to this incredible event. Koro sinks to his knees in humiliation as he finally realizes just how blind he has been to have missed the only person in the village who is truly deserving to be the new chieftain, and she has been living right under his nose all these years.

The whale swims out to sea with Pai still riding on top, sometimes above the surface, sometimes beneath the surface of the ocean. Nanny cannot miss the opportunity to throw his necklace in his face. "Who got this?" he asks, and she replies with an acidic, "Who do YOU think?"without verbalizing the words, "you silly dunderhead" after her statement.

Pai believes that she is to ride the whale to her eventual death, and after a while she does slip off and float away. The villagers know nothing for a short period of time until news comes that Pai has been rescued and is recuperating in a nearby hospital.

Now filled with love, pride and joy, Koro goes to visit his granddaughter in the hospital to anoint her the new chieftain of her Maori village. The movie ends as he hugs her while the two of them ride out in a brand new fishing vessel filled with Maori villagers enthusiastically rowing the boat towards the ancestral fishing grounds. Pai is singing her songs for good fishing. She is also proudly wearing that sacred whale tooth necklace as the new chieftain of her tribe.

A movie review by Carl Zapffe


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