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The people of a remote coastal village in New Zealand, frequented by whales, trace their ancestry back to Paikea, The Whale Rider, and in every generation a male heir has succeeded as chief. When twins are born and the male one dies, Koro (Rawiri Paratene) the grandfather whose chiefdom the boy was to inherit, refuses to accept the girl, his granddaughter, as a future chief. Koro gathers all the sons of his people in a vain effort to find the next chief, while his granddaughter (Keisha Castle-Hughes), now 11, has grown up quietly determined to fulfil her destiny. When a pod of whales beach themselves, it’s as if the ancestors are listening . . .

Review by Louise Keller:
Now on DVD, this delightful story whose roots begin in mythology, is sure to find a brand new audience. It’s an emotional tour de force for writer/director Niki Caro, whose heroine overcomes the odds to fulfil her destiny. Based on the book of the same names and with themes that are relevant in any society today, this is the story of a little girl who is rejected because she wasn’t born a boy. 

Told in her own words and through her narration, we are drawn into the lives of this family that places such importance on its cultural heritage and traditions, that it loses sight of reality. Pai is brought up knowing that she is a disappointment – to her father, who also lost his wife at her birth - and mostly to her grandfather, who puts such store by his faith in the family line and the expectation that is placed on the first-born son. She idolises her grandfather, and is constantly trying to make up for something that is no fault of her own. We get an insight into the culture and tradition of the Maori people and how their beliefs play a part in their daily lives. 

Whale Rider is about the moving relationship between Pai and her grandfather Koro. Koro describes the strands of a thick rope as being representative of their ancestors: they are strong together. But even a thick rope can break, and the emotional journey that we partake allows us to discover that it is possible to mend what has been severed. Lisa Gerrard’s rhythmic and emotive musical sounds integrate powerfully into the subconscious as our hearts go out to Pai, epitomising innocence and courage, as she sets out to prove to Koro that she is deserving to bear the family name. 

Selected from 10,000 children, newcomer eleven-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes is breathtaking as Pai, whose determination and courage is inspiring. It is moving simply to watch her audition tape, which is featured on the DVD. Now nominated for an Academy Award, this feature is sure to interest many. Rawiri Paratene gives a strong and striking performance as Koro, clearly defining his stubbornness and inability to have an open mind. But all the performances are wonderful – I especially enjoyed Vicky Haughton’s sympathetic Nanny Flowers, who understands only too well, and feels everyone’s pain. 

While the physicality of a strong man may not be matched, sometimes there is more power in a little girl’s heart, and our emotions can be stirred as surely as an ocean bed, when massive beached whales make their way out to sea. 

The special features include eight deleted scenes (with optional commentary by director Niki Caro), a behind the scenes feature, a short feature about the building of the canoe, a photo gallery and an audio commentary from Caro. Whale Rider is a splendid and satisfying story for all ages, taking us on an emotional journey of faith, courage and triumph.

Published February 26, 2004

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CAST: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis


SCRIPT: Niki Caro (from The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera)

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen 2.35:1

SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes; behind the scenes; Te Waka – Building the Canoe; Audition – Keisha Castle-Hughes; Trailers; Photo Gallery; Niki Car commentary; plus dvd rom knitting pattern


DVD RELEASE: February 18, 2004

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