Combustible Celluloid
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With: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa, Mana Taumaunu
Written by: Niki Caro, based on the novel by Sir Witi Ihimaera
Directed by: Niki Caro
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference
Language: with English subtitles
Running Time: 101
Date: 09/09/2002

Whale Rider (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Whale to the Chief

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Niki Caro's Whale Rider has the feel of a great and rare children'smovie.

It's a given that most children have enormous imaginations and are capable of making immense mental leaps and bounds to connect the dots in a particularly engaging story.

Yet most filmmakers treat children like lumps of oatmeal with barely enough synapses firing to screech, "Ma! I wanna see Rugrats!" These filmmakers make, or rather engineer, films to fly by at light speed with no stops or pauses that might cause a child's attention to wander. Even the highly acclaimed and stunningly beautiful Finding Nemo is guilty of this.

It's amazing, but films on the opposite end of the spectrum are still being made, films like Babe and Babe: Pig in the City, Fly Away Home, Holes, The Secret of Roan Inish and The White Balloon. These movies rarely break open the box office, but when families discover them, they tend to get top billing in the home video library.

The new festival favorite Whale Rider has a fairly conventional setup, but Caro's sensitive and adult direction give the project a real heft. It doesn't talk down to its audience and it's very easy to like.

Koro (Rawiri Paratene) is the chief of a tribe of Maori. This particular tribe arrived in New Zealand generations earlier by riding on the back of a whale. According to legend, Maori chiefs can actually communicate with the great sea mammals, or at least call to them. This isn't Dr. Doolittle.

Koro is getting up there in years and begins looking for a suitable candidate to replace him. When Koro's own first-born son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) shows no interest in becoming chief, Koro sets his hopes on Porourangi's newborn twins.

Bitter disappointment sets in when the baby boy dies, leaving only the girl, Pai. The grief-stricken Porourangi flits off to Germany to become an artist, leaving Koro and his wife Flowers (Vicky Haughton) take Pai in and raise her.

Now age 12, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) tries in vain to earn Koro's love, but Koro is bound to the old laws and can't see past the fact that she's a girl. It doesn't matter that Pai has gone out of her way to learn the language, songs and history of her people; she can even call whales. When Koro begins giving classes to the village boys in the hopes of finding a new chief among them, she watches from the sidelines and excels quicker than any of them.

The real test comes during the movie's emotionally gripping climax involving a school of beached whales and a rescue effort. Caro documents it with special attention to beauty and sadness with a distinct lack of hysteria or obvious pulse-pounding music.

Most of the credit also goes to Castle-Hughes, a small girl with a giant-sized performance. In one scene, she performs a school play about the history of her people, and her heart slowly breaks as she watches the empty chair reserved for her grandfather. As the show goes on, her confident fa´┐Żade grows thinner and thinner.

People often ask why I'm so hard on sentimental movies, and the answer is because most sentimental movies give too much. They assume that the audience isn't going to get the point unless the emotions are layered on thick. Instead of audience manipulation and pre-programmed emotional mechanics, Whale Rider concentrates on its story and characters. It's that simple.

Unfortunately, the clueless MPAA has saddled Whale Rider with a PG-13 for "brief language" and "a momentary drug reference." I honestly can't recall any of this stuff in the film, and I suspect kids and families will be too involved to notice. The rating should not deter parents from bringing their kids to this wonderful film.

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