At this crowd-pleaser's core lies a very familiar high-concept pitch: girl vs. boys. This conflict is ubiquitous these days, from rush-hour traffic (note the "goddess" bumper sticker on the SUV that enthusiastically cuts you off without signaling) to our current plethora of cinematic entertainments wherein females kick, punch, leap and shoot to prove quién es más macho. Whatever. Life's too short. Refreshingly, Whale Rider -- very much like the recent Bend It Like Beckham or Real Women Have Curves -- takes a more elegant approach to its feminist salvo, raising its sensibilities above cheap hyperbole, thus allowing for deep, universal appreciation. That it's also splendidly engaging doesn't hurt.
Our focal point is Paikea (wunderkind discovery Keisha Castle-Hughes), a pre-teen Maori girl so named by her bohemian father, Porourangi (Hollywood staple Cliff Curtis), after an even more significant ancestor than his own ancient namesake. The original Paikea is believed -- by the Ngati Konohi tribe of Whangara, New Zealand -- to have brought new life to their shores a thousand years prior, arriving from the ancestral realm of Hawaiki (not Hawaii) astride a whale. Paikea's noble, nautical cavort is commemorated in a wood carving atop the local marae, or meeting house, affording the tribe its identity and the story its title.
The film, which eventually takes on a modestly mythic quality, begins with mortal tragedy as Porourangi's wife dies in childbirth, taking baby Paikea's male twin with her. Heartbroken, Porourangi flees to Germany to practice his arts and crafts, leaving Paikea to be raised by her whip-smart grandmother Nanny Flowers (energetic Vicky Haughton) and sternly traditionalist, unrepentently sexist grandfather Koro Apirana (terrific Rawiri Paratene, working wonders with a very challenging role). Her culturally-resonant name shortened to Pai, the girl spends much of her childhood striving to earn Koro's acceptance and respect, which he withholds out of profound disappointment that she is not a boy he can train to take over as the next rangatira, or tribal chief.
Quite unlike Witi Ihimaera's poetic 1987 novel The Whale Rider, this cinematic adaptation by Niki Caro (Memory and Desire) focuses almost exclusively on the struggle between Koro and Pai. The elder's quest for the perfect boy-chief turns him into a sort of deranged Mr. Miyagi, while Pai desperately seeks to enter both his training courses and his deeper affections. This enhanced focus prompts many alterations, including Porourangi's second-act departure to Germany (convenient for both Curtis' busy shooting schedule and the film's German investors), the simplification of our young heroine's name (in the book, she's Kahutia Te Rangi, or Kahu), and the excising of much delicious whale mythology and interaction which would have required a fantasist in the director's chair. Gone also are the musings and travels of the book's male narrator, Pai's uncle Rawiri (played here by the charming Grant Roa), but the character is still present to look silly like the other males, in keeping with the director's wont.
That said, Caro's adaptation -- particularly coming from a white woman -- is hugely satisfying. Of course, Pai must be shown besting all the boys (including delicate Mana Taumaunu as her sadly smoking friend). But apart from that, Caro relates Maori sensibilities and culture with great affection and aplomb -- don't miss the elder busybodies or Pai's truly amazing turn at a school pageant -- delivering a film as important, yet generally more audience-friendly, than 1997's Once Were Warriors. As an outsider, one may quibble that Caro forgets to show us the source of Koro's fervid discontent -- unlike in recent indigenous fare like Skins or Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, his people live in pretty houses and drive nice cars -- but perhaps present-day territorial conquest offers some explanation (the film is also funded by the New Zealand Tourist Board).
Vain attempts at nit-picking aside, there are many lovely elements involved here, from the score by hip Lisa Gerrard (recycling her soundscapes á la Peter Gabriel) to the wholly enjoyable cast (must also mention Tahei Simpson as Pai's endearing schoolteacher) to Caro's sensuous directorial gifts, which splendidly balance human foibles with elemental forces. The climax and conclusion are fairly predictable, but there's a telling scene in the middle, in which Koro likens the rope of his boat's motor to his ancestry, only to have the threads snap in his hands. Pai's simple solution -- to retie the rope and start the motor, to reconnect to the sea and ultimately to take whale movies way beyond Orca, Free Willy or even that Star Trek flick -- focuses the power of interconnectedness in a seemingly routine gesture. It also reveals Caro's skill as a filmmaker, as her Whale Rider most often delivers the feeling of a dream one wishes would come true.