A reel ride through Maori myth
The popular New Zealand film 'Whale Rider' makes its Portland debut at the new Pioneer Place Stadium 6. But had the film been released a decade ago or more, it certainly would have premiered at the Movie House, a now-defunct refuge from the burgeoning multiplexes, and the place where you could see what might be described as mainstream art-house fare.
You see, 'Whale Rider' is what local buffs used to call 'a Movie House movie': a foreign film of a romantic or lilting comic bent, usually of some cultural or travelogue value. Based on a 1,000-year-old Maori tribal legend, 'Whale Rider' is a coming-of-age drama and mythic adventure set in a region of great natural beauty. The landscape provides a timeless backdrop to a story that touches on ancient and contemporary issues.
It's a present-day tale steeped in the past, the story of a 12-year-old girl's struggle to assume a position of leadership for which she seems destined but which even her own family denies. When Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is born, her twin brother dies, along with her mother, to the shame of Pai's father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) and grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene). Upset over the death of his son and wife, Porourangi leaves for Europe, while Pai is raised by Koro and Nanny (Vicky Haughton), her loving grandmother.
Maori legend has it that their tribal village founder arrived on the back of a whale, and future heirs to village leadership must be male. The proper heir was to have been Pai's brother, and Koro, bound by tradition, cannot acknowledge Pai's right to fulfill the tribe's heritage. While Koro attempts to train the other first-born village sons in 'the old ways,' Pai studies from a distance and grows increasingly sure that she is meant for something extraordinary.
It would be nice to say 'Whale Rider' is itself extraordinary. But instead, it's simply pleasant. Written and directed by Niki Caro, who based her script on a 1986 novel by Witi Ihimaera, the film often comes across as a mystical-epic version of an 'Afterschool Special.' Earnest and well-intentioned, it's a genuine feel-good adventure that never quite attains the spiritual sweep it obviously yearns for.
While Caro gets very fine work from Castle-Hughes, who had no professional experience, and Paratene, a popular star with a 30-year career, she captures the grandeur of the coastal locations without transforming them in the way someone like Peter Weir, Fred Schepisi or Peter Jackson might have. She's a bit too literal for her poetic story. Though you are taken by the natural sights and sounds, you are never completely immersed. But these aren't failures as much as limitations.
'Whale Rider' has much to recommend it, both as a study in cultural and familial tensions and a feminist statement that's nonstrident and cant-free. The film also gathers power in the final section after a first half too full of Koro's stubbornness and Pai's seemingly magical ability to do everything right, further increasing Koro's anger. It's a good ride; it's just that you're merely moved when you could be transported.