Had I been aware that the much-praised Whale Rider had received more “audience favorite” awards at film festivals than any film since Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, I would have approached it with diminished expectations, and might have enjoyed it more. At least I would have known it was essentially a “feel-good” movie for the art-house crowd.
I went in expecting to be blown away by a cinematic marvel; instead, I was entertained by a well-crafted, well-acted, well-intentioned but generally predictable coming-of-age story with exotic underpinnings. And I was, in fact, entertained, and there’s nothing wrong with that; nor is there anything amiss with a movie that’s just plain well-made.
Whale Rider is a story of female empowerment (thankfully worlds away from the likes of Legally Blonde 2); and here again, that’s a laudable thing. But none of these selling points alone makes for a truly compelling film. It doesn’t help that the movie mostly moves at the pace of a very old and gravely debilitated snail.
If it weren’t for the exotic New Zealand locale, the depiction of modern Maori life and traditions, and the star-quality performance of newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes, the film would be as bulkily ponderous as its titular aquatic mammals. Sometimes, it comes perilously close to that anyway. The story is a simple, modern fable about Pai (Castle-Hughes), a young girl who is clearly meant to be the leader of her people, but is thwarted in her destiny by the inability of her grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) to accept a woman as a leader. That’s really all there is — apart from pleasant indications that most (possibly all) of Pai’s tribe do not buy into her grandfather’s sexist views. In fact, this is so much the case that one wonders why no one tells the old boy that he’s filled with the oil of the whale — except that there’d be no movie if they did.
It doesn’t help that Pai is just a little too perfect. While watching Legally Blonde 2’s pink-clad heroine, I kept thinking of Richard Haydn’s bitchy assessment of Eleanor Parker’s “not too tart, not too sweet” pink lemonade in The Sound of Music as “just too pink.” There’s something of the same dynamic going on with Pai being “just too good.” The character has little texture as she gamely copes with everything that’s handed to her in a generally superior manner.
When she blandly tells the audience in narration, “I wasn’t afraid to die,” the moment should have been powerful viewing; alas, it just seems to be more of the same. Only once — when Pai is performing in a school play for the grandfather who doesn’t show up — does she seem quite human. This was also the sole moment where I felt truly connected to the character (probably because of the universal nature of the situation).
There’s plenty of rich territory that could have been mined in the grandfather-granddaughter relationship — for instance, Pai’s impressing everyone except the one person she really wants to care. But writer/director Niki Caro leaves that by the wayside for us to pick up if we will — possibly out of a desire to present a self-possessed character as central to the creation of a modern myth. That’s valid enough, but I’m not sure it’s human enough.
Still, Whale Rider has moments of great power. The school play is the most accessible one, but others work in a different manner — especially the eerie business of “calling to the ‘old ones,'” the images of beached whales and the efforts at getting the behemoths back to the sea, and, best of all, the actual “whale rider” sequence.
In the end, this is a worthy film (probably more so for young viewers), and one with a brilliant, deeply interfused sense of place; yet it only fitfully engaged me on a dramatic level. I certainly recommend it for what it does accomplish, I just can’t help wishing it had accomplished a bit more.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke