WHALE RIDER is a sweet-natured drama about a young girl trying to find her place within a patriarchal Maori tribe in New Zealand. The movie contains, however, an acceptance of pagan beliefs, including ancestor worship, in its story, which also takes a syncretistic approach that provides a multicultural, feminist, politically-correct spin.
The movie opens with a modern-day crisis in a Maori tribe, the Ngati Konohi, in a small coastal village in New Zealand. The hereditary first-born male child dies at birth with its mother, but is survived by his twin sister. In defiance of the tribal patriarch, the son of the patriarch and the father of the twins, names the girl after Paikea, the tribe’s venerated ancestor whom they believe arrived in New Zealand a thousand years ago on the back of a whale after his canoe capsized. Tradition states that the name should only be given to a first-born male child, so the father’s actions anger the grandfather, Koro, the current chief of the tribe. The fiercely traditional grandfather immediately shortens the girl’s name to “Pai” (pronounced Pie).
Pai’s grieving father leaves her in the care of Koro and his mother, Nanny, while he seeks a different destiny abroad. Twelve years later, Pai senses that her grandfather, Koro, cares about her, though Koro’s caring is distanced by his grief and disappointment that there is no male family heir to become chief. Pai is strengthened by the unconditional love of her wise grandmother. She is determined to change Koro’s anger and regret. This becomes nearly impossible when Pai secretly tries to learn the male traditions while Koro trains the first-born boys of the village, hoping to find a worthy successor to his reign as chief. When Koro finds out about Pai’s indiscretion, it puts even further strain on their relationship. Only a miracle can heal the situation and help Pai fulfill her destiny.
Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene do a superb job of delineating the characters of Pai and her stubborn grandfather, Koro, respectively, and their troubled relationship. Vicky Houghton also does a marvelous job as the grandmother, who tries to mediate between her husband and her granddaughter. The writing and direction by Niki Coro, who’s of European descent, is sometimes a bit on the slow side, however.
The focus of WHALE RIDER is, of course, on Pai’s relationship with her stubborn grandfather, Koro. Pai’s very existence challenges Koro’s masculine understanding of the way things are supposed to be. Pai is not coming from a radical feminist point of view, however. She just wants to fulfill her destiny as part of the pagan traditions of her people. Thus, the primary goal of WHALE RIDER is not to use left-wing radical politics to completely attack and transform the traditions of a particular society, but to bend those traditions to accommodate a few modern sensibilities.
The movie implies, however, that the ancestors, the mystical whales, or a divine being has chosen Pai to carry on the tribe’s traditions. Thus, the end result is to affirm false pagan ideas, even though a minor character says at an important point near the end that she will pray to God for a positive miracle to occur, and the miracle actually seems to occur. Thus, Pai has a mystical relationship with the whales swimming off the shore. Her relationship with the whales plays an important role in the resolution of the conflict with her grandfather.
Still, WHALE RIDER provides a unique look into a society that only a few people know anything about. That, and the positive pro-family themes in the movie, may also furnish some insights for Christians who have a heart for leading the Maori and other tribes of Polynesian descent to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14: 17).
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President Bob Berney
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(PaPaPa, Fe, PC, C, B, L, V, N, A, D, M) Syncretistic pagan worldview with some feminist and politically correct elements, redemptive metaphors in a prayer to God, and some moral/biblical elements such as family values and one reference regarding a prayer to God, which is answered miraculously; eight obscenities; some violence such as mock fighting with sticks and character rides whale but nearly drowns; no sex; upper male nudity and girl sits in bathtub, but nothing shown; brief alcohol use; smoking; and, grandfather rejects granddaughter and hands out unjust punishments, granddaughter disobeys, and father abandons daughter.