Twelve year old Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is a descendent of Paikea, the legendary leader who rode a whale from Hawaiki to New Zealand. She should be trained by her grandfather Koro, (Rawiri Paratene) to become the rangatiratanga, but tradition has it that only men can assume this role of leader. Desperate to gain her closed-off patrician’s attention, she breaks the rules and illicitly begins the training on her own steam.
Dances With Whales. The Taiaha Kid. Maori Girlfight. The comparisons come quick and effortlessly. Almost too quick and effortlessly, as lazy critics have hijacked the historical terminology of similar celluloid looks at ethnic communities from around the world in their appraisals of Niki Caro’s New Zealand Maori flick. The ignorant, inappropriate replication of terms like ‘reservation’ when talking of the unsegregated communities in New Zealand and ‘indigenous’ when referring to a people that only landed eight centuries before Captain Cook washed up on the same shores reveals the orientalism that still persists in white, western media when dealing anything foreign. This cultural short-sightedness is unfortunate but excusable, seeing as this slight family drama’s female empowerment story rarely engages the brains as often as it shamelessly attacks the tear ducts.
At best Whale Rider is an uneven weepy that earns kudos for its ethnicity. All cultures deserve their cinematic celebrations, whether it is via the gleefully stereotypical view of Ireland in The Quiet Man (1952) or through radical reinterpretations of Inuit myths in Antanarjuat (2001). Yet here, if the characters didn’t have Moko-influenced tattoos and stopped calling each other pukka, then this would seem dangerously like a Free Willy (1993) sequel. Koro chastises his son, who sells Maori carvings to Europeans by calling his art, "Not work, souvenirs." The same criticism could be levelled at the film itself.
Stock sentimental scenes of group hugs mingle uneasily with moments of emotionally-stunted fathers ostracising their children. Often the characters shift out of their sterner holding patterns to deliver the heartwarming trailer shots, such as the fleabitten old man/young child bike rides. One cannot help feel such moments are present to help distributors market the film internationally rather than to give the characters shade and complexity. And while Caro’s direction has a fascination with extreme close-ups that rivals Sergio Leone, by the fifth or sixth lengthy shot of tear-stained cheeks, one cannot help wishing the running time was a good twenty minutes shorter.
Having said that, the final act is compelling. A sequence in which the Maori community strives to save a herd of beached whales is tense and truly heartfelt. Perhaps Whale Rider’s problem is not that it seems an amalgamation of tales already told, but because it actually could be the prelude to a far more interesting film.
The theme of modernising a tradition to allow a girl to become the community’s rangatiratanga is diverting enough but it might be far more dramatic to see how much hold the legend of Paikea, the Whale Rider, has once it has been subverted to allow a female to assume the role of the leader, despite its blatantly masculine origin. Maori men are a fleeting presence in this film: Pai’s father is tenuously estranged from her, living with a German women on the other side of the globe, while Pai’s rival’s father is more concerned with rolling with his gang than experiencing his son’s spiritual growth.
When one sees that the final shot of the long boat being set to sea with many white faces, filling the places of the absent Maori men, the future for this advanced, dwindling society seems to be made clear: ethnic boat rides for backpackers hoping to get down with the ‘real’ Kiwis. It’s a depressing glimpse of the reality which might follow the movie’s triumphant close.