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Whale Rider
cast: Keisha Castle-Hughes, Tim Sanders, John Barnett, and Frank Hubner

director: Niki Caro

101 minutes (PG) 2002 widescreen ratio 16:9
Icon DVD Region 2 rental and retail
Also available to rent or buy on video

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Debbie Moon
The Whangara people of New Zealand cherish the memory of their ancestor Paikea's arrival in the land, riding on the back of a whale - a talent that his descendants, the tribal chiefs, are said to share. But when her twin brother dies at birth, proud, sparky Pai is left as the only heir - and girls are forbidden to serve as chiefs. Her gruff but loving grandfather brings her up, while grappling with the question of the succession. Her father is a successful artist who's turned his back on the old ways to live in Europe, and none of the boys of the tribe seem to have the necessary skills. Pai sets her heart on winning over her grandfather and attaining her birthright, but it's only when a natural catastrophe strikes that she can finally prove her worth...
   Summarised, Whale Rider sounds like a Disney film, full of ethnic colour and faintly patronising moral lessons. But Niki Caro's triumphant first feature is far superior to any House of Mouse morality play. Capturing both the vitality and the fragility of the Maori culture, the film never shies from the problems facing an impoverished people caught between the old and the new. A sprinkling of humour, particularly from the down-to-earth women, certainly doesn't hurt, and the performances are excellent. Keisha Castle-Hughes, making her film debut as Pai, gives a superb performance as a vulnerable and determined child, bruised by the emotional chaos of broken families and the slow decay of traditions that she still understands and adores.
   But what's most impressive about Whale Rider is the way that Caro mixes gritty realism with a genuine, unashamed spirituality, a feeling for the land and the people and the links between them. The turmoil in the tribe is reflected in the natural world, and it seems entirely right that it should be. A beautiful, haunting film about change and continuity, Whale Rider is one of the best debut films in years, and proof that New Zealand has more to offer world audiences than just hobbits. Not to be missed.
   A good selection of DVD extras includes a substantial making-of featurette (27 minutes) with interesting contributions from the cast, an 11-minute documentary on the art of making traditional Maori canoes, and an understated director's commentary. There's also Castle-Hughes' impressive screen test, and a full range of trailers - including radio spots! Now that's thorough...
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