Whale Rider (2002)

Directed by Niki Caro

This is a relatively small film from New Zealand that has captured the hearts of people throughout the world. Whale Rider is a thoroughly wonderful film. I suspect, however, not quite as engaging as some would have us believe.

This isn’t to say there is a fault with Whale Rider but that what is generally not said in most of the reviews I’ve seen is that it is a quiet film. Many reviews talk about how great the film is for younger people. But I suspect this is an adult’s perspective.

For a younger person I think this movie may be more like cauliflower – something your parents say is good for you but not really something you would choose for yourself.

I think if you’re a young person, you’ve been conditioned to some extent by television and movies like Finding Nemo or Lord of the Rings. Encountering a movie like Whale Rider comes as a bit of a stop or yield sign. It is a slower, quieter film and takes some work to become acclimated to its pace and overall tone.

Whale Rider tells the story of Pai, a young girl living in a small town in New Zealand. Although loved by everyone around her, she is something of a disappointment because she is a girl. For family and culture, it is a first born son that is wanted.

Within this context, Pai lives with a sense of destiny.

However, she is denied this destiny, largely by her grandfather who is obsessively and stubbornly traditional. To repeat, she is completely loved, yet Pai is forced to constantly apologize for her life — for being a girl.

As you can expect, the film is about Pai overcoming this traditional mindset and ultimately triumphing. However, what is not expected is the way the film achieves its outcome. This is not a Hollywood film. While something of a fable, it is realistic. Or put more accurately, it is more true than we normally see.

The film is a joy for its realistic portrayals. I especially like the non-gauzy look of the homes and the town and the general conditions of the life of these people. It’s also an interesting window into at least some of contemporary Maori culture as it appears in New Zealand.

I’m a little uncomfortable though with how correct the film is. I’m not sure I can nail down specifics, but I did get a sense that the film had been filtered through a political correctness screen.

Perhaps it’s just a sense that everything is a little too idealized. We get whales, aboriginal culture, feminism … I dunno. Perhaps it’s just a sense of earnestness that is off-putting.

Still, it’s a great film and worth seeing. But if you do invite children to watch it don’t be surprised if they are bored. It may be a little too quiet compared to what they are use to, a little too much like cauliflower and broccoli for them.

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