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Whale Rider (2002)

One young girl dared to confront the past, change the present and determine the future

Rating: 7/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

UK Certificate: PG

The idea of making a film about a remarkable youngster shunned by a staunchly-traditionalist parent figure really isn’t an incredibly new one. Think ‘Billy Elliot’ or ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ and you’ve already got two textbook examples from Blighty. But I must be a sucker for a nice bit of scenery, because I’ll take the lush fields and breezy beaches featured in New Zealand’s ‘Whale Rider’ over the backdrops of those two films any day.

‘Whale Rider’ is the story of Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), a young girl resented by grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) for the heinous crime of being born a female. He longs instead for a grandson to carry on the family name, as they are the last descendants of the original Maori leader who, according to legend, went about on a whale. Under the circumstances, you’d think that Pai would jump at the chance to flit to Germany with her long-absent dad, and you’ll wonder why on Earth she doesn’t when that opportunity arises. Perhaps it’s because the place is so full of Germans – though I stress that that’s just a guess.

So, shunning his granddaughter despite her continual attempts to impress, Koro seeks out a new great chief among the first-born boys of the local neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Pai sets about upstaging each of the lads with her superior skills at stick-fighting, swimming, and pulling faces – and even goes as far as to go riding on a whale. She does it to show Gramps that she too can be great, that she too can inspire those around her, and that she too is capable of proudly carrying the family name. I’d probably have done it predominantly out of spite, but those other reasons are good too.

Just like the stubborn parent-types in those two films mentioned earlier, Koro is an infuriating character to watch and 105 minutes of his moaning can be tough on the system. But this is a strangely-engrossing film, beautiful to look at and featuring probably the best child performance of the year from Castle-Hughes. It’s probably not one that’s going to be appreciated by the kids (despite its ‘family’ tag) but, if you can, send the ankle-biters in to ‘Rugrats Go Wild’ and slip next door to watch this one.

It's Got: An incredibly saddening scene featuring beached whales.

It Needs: To inject a little more humour.


Picturesque, slow-paced, atmospheric and very well-acted – but lacking a little in spark and invention.