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'Whale Rider'

'Whale Rider' connects New Zealand's past and present

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Once were a proud people led by a brave and strong leader. When his canoe capsized, he climbed onto the back of a whale that carried him to a new land, forever linking the people and the whales in an abiding spiritual bond.

 
 
"Whale Rider"

Rating: PG-13 for brief language and a momentary drug reference

Starring: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene

Director: Niki Caro

Critics call:

   
 

In a film adaptation of a novel by Witi Ihimaera, the traditions of eastern New Zealand's contemporary Whangara tribe are challenged by economic decline and cultural evolution. "Whale Rider" is a love story about a proud and stubborn man and his proud and stubborn granddaughter, an anthropological overview of tribal customs in the modern world, and mostly a fable about the unbreakable ties linking a people to the natural world.

Director Niki Caro focuses her cameras on stark New Zealand vistas and submerged, barnacle-encrusted whales. But none of the images are as striking as those of 11-year-old Paikea suffering the growing rift between her and her beloved grandfather, a patriarchal tribal elder determined to pass the ancient traditions to young tribesmen.

Among the Whangara, leadership is passed to first-born sons. Even as Pai hates herself for disappointing her grandfather by being born a girl, some subconscious part of her knows she's the chosen one destined to lead the tribe into the 21st century.

In her first acting role, Keisha Castle-Hughes conveys a full range of emotions, from the warm glow of joy to abject abandonment and every nuance in between. It's a promising premiere for an unknown kid cast only because she hammed it up at a school audition. Veteran New Zealand actor Rawiri Paratene is convincing as the stoic elder, and Vicky Haughton stands out in a supporting role.

"Whale Rider" picked up a People's Choice Award at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. As is customary in fables, it telegraphs what's coming and asks its audience to take implausible leaps of faith. But it's a compelling tale told with a mystical nuance that leaves the overwhelming impression of the latest link in a legend that originated around tribal campfires.


John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.

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