Whale Rider (2002), or I Dreamed Of Equality And Then I Woke Up

6 01 2009
Theres nothing quite like the song of the whales...

There's nothing quite like the song of the whales...

Today’s selection comes from Stephen, who literally begged me to watch this movie. Bawling, screaming, crying all over the place, he said “Eric, oh please! Please oh please oh please oh please oh please oh PLEASE watch this movie!” I caved after that pathetic display. This one’s for you, you sobbing mess! 😉

It seems like as far back as I can remember, family movies have been pretty bland. Even when I was a child, I thought they could have done more. My formative years were spent in the 90’s, an extraordinary time for these movies. It seems like new movies specifically designed for me were coming out every week: The Power Rangers Movie, Double Dragon, Warriors of Virtue, and The Indian in the Cupboard were all pasteurized, homogenized, processed, and packaged for me personally. They had goofy characters, pretty colors, and plenty of action; just like every kid wants, right? Well, believe it or not, folks, but I was never a huge fan of these movies. They felt patronizing in a time before I comprehended the definition of the word ‘patronizing’. It was crass and petty, and it made me bitter toward the family film and kids film for a long time. So it’s no surprise that a good family film comes along when I’m no longer a child. Thanks, Whale Rider! Thanks a lot!

Whale Rider is the story of Paikea, the granddaughter to a chief of the New Zealand Maori tribe. When Paikea’s twin brother and mother die during childbirth, it leaves Paikea the sole successor to the role of chief. Unfortunately, because she is a girl she cannot be chief, according to her grandfather. Yet she is interested in the position. She learns the history of the tribe, the traditions, the ancient customs; all in an attempt to show her grandfather that she can do it. But there is no arguing with him. He has even set up a cultural school in town made up of all the town’s young boys to test their mettle to see if any of them could become chief. The grandfather wants to keep the past alive so badly, he fails to notice the promising young heir in front of him. It is a story of overcoming boundaries and social stereotypes as seen through the perspective of one girl attempting to fill the shoes of a man.

Now this is a family movie that respects its audience. I do not feel spoon-fed by the director, there are no unforgivable flatulence jokes, and I feel like we are being treated like adults, which is what children often want in the first place, or at least they think they do. There are some real issues at hand here that really mean something; sexism, the bonds of community, the dissolution of Maori culture in the face of modern times. These issues are handled very tastefully and are used slyly enough to get people thinking about them.

I could go on about technical points, but to be honest I don’t think I care about them in this movie. The one thing that strikes you about this movie is Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Paikea. She is spellbinding, a joy to behold. Her eyes particularly speak in the most articulate way. You feel for her all the way through. At eleven, she inhabits forlorn in a way most people cannot do as adults. I hope to see more of her in non-biblical films (see The Nativity Story) and I hope she continues the trend of more thoughtful, engaging characters like the one on display here.

With a stellar score by Dead Can Dance alum Lisa Gerrard, delightful script by the director Nick Caro, and some powerful performances peppered in for good measure, Whale Rider truly made an impression on me. It offers a unique insight into the lives of the native New Zealanders, the Maori, and it talks in its own way about the struggles of women past and present, which should be talked about more often no matter how it is said. It is the kind of family film I wish I had seen with my own family. I give Whale Rider 81/2 misogynistic grandparents out of 10.

See you tomorrow, when we discuss Ishtar!