movie film review | chris tookey

Whale Rider

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  Whale Rider Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
7.67 /10
Pai: Keisha Castle-Hughes , Koro: Rawiri Paratene , Nanny Flowers: Vicky Haughton
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Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Niki Caro, adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera

Released: 2002
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: New Zealand/ Germany
Length: 0

A naive female-empowerment movie about a 12 year-old Maori (played by a beautiful child newcomer, Keisha Castle-Hughes, pictured).
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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She feels a mystical call to train herself to become leader of her people, against the wishes of her male chauvinist grandfather (Rawiri Paratene) who rejects her ambition because she wasn't born a boy.

This small film from New Zealand arrived garlanded with audience awards from film festivals, so it's clearly a crowd-pleaser. At the same time, it's hard to know precisely what crowd it's trying to please.

Like Bend It Like Beckham or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the story is of one girl's fight to overcome the sexist prejudices of her ancestors; and it has much the same feelgood appeal as them, though fewer laughs.

Keisha, who looks like a much younger version of Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, is refreshingly natural in the title role, but her character is a little too simplistic to be true. Could any modern girl be so utterly steeped in Maori tradition, so immune to the lures of other cultures, quite so flawless in character? Because neither she nor the other characters deepen, the film comes across as not quite sophisticated enough for adults.

But most modern children (especially boys) will find the tale talky and reminiscent of soap opera. The only thing resembling an action sequence comes at the end, when some whales beach themselves and conveniently reveal the girl's destiny to her relatives and neighbours. For the most part, there are too few whales, and too much gnashing of teeth. And Niki Caro directs the action at, well, a whale's pace.

The style is an uneasy mixture of magic realism and gritty TV soap. I had been hoping for something approaching the quality of Billy Elliot, and this is much less sophisticated.

I found the film worthy, pat and self-consciously new agey, flaccid when it came to embracing Maori culture, and unrealistic about the threat posed to it by modern civilisation. I also wanted to feel that there was much more at stake than one girl's relationship with her granddad.

However, many girls and women with a strong sentimental streak may find it touching and even mythic. This is one of the few films about the Maori people which shows them in a positive, dignified light. And the coastal scenery of New Zealand is shot with love and lyricism.

Whale Rider is a sweet film that's gently entertaining and won't offend anyone - not even male chauvinist Maoris. But it needed greater depth and complexity.

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