The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #5 September / October 2013
At the Cinema
Whale Rider
by Erik Zidowecki
September / October 2013 | 

Warning: This review does give away the whole story, but the story is not hard to guess from the title and first 10 minutes of the film.

The movie Whale Rider, based upon a book of the same name, focuses on the culture of the Maori people of New Zealand. The main character is Paikea, a 12-year old girl. Paikea is the name of a great chief who rode on top of a whale and bringing his people from Hawaiki. He is the one the chief line is directly descended from.

This Paikea, however, was born as a paternal twin, but her brother died in childbirth, along with her mother. She is the granddaughter of the tribe's chief, Koro, and her brother would have become the new chief. Since Paikea is a girl, she can not take on that role, which upsets Koro greatly. When Paikea is born, Koro blames Paikea's father, Porourangi, for this, and so Porourangi leaves the tribe, letting Koro and his wife, Nanny Flowers, raise Paikea.

Paikea constantly tries to please him by becoming well versed in the traditions and rituals of her people, but he ignores her achievements.

While Koro does come to care about Paikea, he can't truly accept her and even blames her for the tribe being "in dark times". Paikea constantly tries to please him by becoming well versed in the traditions and rituals of her people, but he ignores her achievements. In order to find a new chief, Koro starts a school to teach the boys that are of the proper age to become the new leader. He bans Paikea from it, but she still manages to learn from them. When Koro starts teaching them the ways of the taiaha, the traditional fighting stick, she turns to her uncle Rawiri to train her. Koro eventually finds out, after Paikea defeats one of the boys, Hemi, in a taiaha fight, and in his anger, tells Paikea that she has broken the line of chiefs.

This pattern continues to be repeated throughout the film, with Paikea trying to prove herself as a leader while Koro continues to ban her from doing so while himself falling further into despair and bitterness. When all of the boys fail the last test of recovering the rei puta, a whale tooth worn around Koro's neck, when he throws it into the ocean, Koro takes to his bed, shutting out everyone completely.

Carving of legendary Paikea riding a whale

The movie plot is very simple to follow, and most people can already guess the ending, especially from the title. You know that eventually Paikea will ride a whale and become the new chief, thus proving to Koro that women can be leaders too. This is the uplifting lesson that most people take away from the movie. I think the movie is more interesting because of the look at the Maori culture.

First, we see the tribe as rather modern people. They live in normal houses, drive cars, etc., and are not, as often displayed to tourists, as quaint grass skirt wearing primitives. In fact, Porourangi is traveling Europe as an artist. In the end, we do see them performing a traditional dance, but is part of a celebration.

Father and son, always banging heads

While they are modern, they still have a sense of their culture and traditions, which is very good in this world where so many people are losing theirs. A number of times, Paikea recites chants in Maori, as does Nanny Flowers. Before he left for Europe, Porourangi was building a waka, which is a large canoe for many people. This one was 60 feet in length, and Paikea often sits in it at night to look out over the ocean.

The climax of the movie involves several whales beaching themselves by Paikea's house. The entire tribe comes to try to save the whales, staying up all night pouring ocean water from buckets on them until the tide can come back in. This shows that the people of the tribe still connect with their heritage and nature. Koro finds the largest one, the leader, which is supposedly the one that the legendary Paikea rode upon. Koro explains to the others that if they can get that whale into the water, the others will follow, so every attempts to do just that as the tide comes in. All help except Paikea, because Koro has forbidden her to touch it, telling her she has done enough damage already. They fail to move it, and as they leave it to get some rest before trying again, Paikea walks unseen to it, climbs on it, and rides it into the ocean, thus saving it and all the other whales, although she almost drowns in the process. It is this action, along with recovering Koro's whale tooth from where he threw it, which finally convinces Koro that he has been wrong.

Paikea in her father's uncompleted waka

While I thought the movie was well done, and I did understand the point about women can be leaders as well as we can't force people to be what they aren't (nor deny what they are), I have to confess I was a bit confused and disappointed by the ending.

First of all, while Koro finally saw that he had been wrong, he only comes to accept Paikea when she fulfills his wishes. This is a man that has forsaken both his sons, the local boys, and Paikea because they didn't match up to what he wanted. He doesn't seem to change any of that, instead only accepting Paikea when she proves she is a leader. To me, it wasn't that he had learned a lesson, but rather, he had been given what he wanted after he behaved badly. It felt to me like a child who wants a toy and when told no, gets angry, throws a tantrum, and shuts out everyone until he gets the toy, at which point, he is all happy again.

Second of all, the main thrust of Koro's need for the leader seemed to be because the community was falling apart and they were "in dark times". We get a few glimpses of this, like in seeing how Hemi's father acts with some friends. However, the closing scene shows Paikea's father has returned, people launching the waka and rowing out into ocean, and other members of the community performing a traditional dance. All this because they have declared Paikea the leader? To me, it makes a bad commentary on the people, for it would seem they are unable to deal with anything unless they have an official leader.

Paikea in traditional costume

Lastly, I was confused about Koro's role in all of this. According to his claims about the family line of chiefs, it would seem he was the chief of the tribe. He was chief when Paikea was born, but we never see him in that role. He is never shown to be leading anything. Since his grandson, had he lived, would not have been able to become chief for many more years, Koro should have still been leading the tribe, and thus any decline would be his fault, not his son's nor Paikea's. He speaks so much about what is needed to be a leader, but never shows those traits in himself. Perhaps that is how his character was supposed to be, but that just made the ending, with him getting what he wants, seem even worse to me. It teaches me that you can be irresponsible and nasty to everyone and be rewarded in the end.

Despite my feelings about the ending and possible confusion over the what Koro is really doing, the movie is very enjoyable to watch and does include plenty of Maori culture and language. I would be interested in hearing what others think about the movie's depiction of the Maori culture, especially those that have first hand knowledge.

At The Cinema - Whale Rider
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
• "Whale Rider" IMDB (Internet Movie Database) <>
• "Whale Rider" From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia <>
All images are copyright South Pacific Pictures, ApolloMedia, Pandora Filmproduktion

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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