It's Blue Crush meets Free Willy! But while the thought of this may induce seasickness, rest assured Whale Rider is every bit as bold and uplifting as its title suggests. Adapted from the novel by Witi Ihimaera, it's a contemporary growing pains yarn, infused with the mysticism of ancient Maori legend - celebrating tradition and redefining it for our times.
Our heroine is Pai, a self-possessed yet acutely sensitive young girl (Keisha Castle-Hughes) born into a long line of tribal chiefs. However, her gender means Pai can never succeed the title. When her father (Cliff Curtis) and uncle (Grant Roa) both reject the calling, the future of the tribe looks grim. For Pai's grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), a staunch defender of tradition, it's a full-blown crisis.
"RIDES AGAINST THE TIDE"
Although he loves Pai, Koro also blames her for the stillbirth of her twin brother - and his rightful heir. Throughout her young life, she is thwarted in her every attempt to win Koro's approval and he angrily rejects her aspirations to leadership. But Pai is blessed with fortitude and rides against the tide to realise her destiny.
With the weight of the film on her shoulders, Keisha Castle-Hughes remains poised and unaffected. Her onscreen presence is as powerful as the role demands, and then some. Director Niki Caro frames her against a sandy dreamscape, conveying all the drama of the New Zealand coastline and Pai's deep connection to her environment.
In weaving together universal themes of family, and the need for acceptance, with the romanticism of ancient legend, Caro is successful for the most part. However, the knotty family dynamics can sometimes feel perfunctory and even a little clichéd, highlighted in a key scene when Koro fails to show at Pai's school concert. Even so, Whale Rider is a wonderfully refreshing and evocative modern fairytale that's sure to make waves with its audience.