According to a local myth, when the ancient ancestor Paikea was lost at sea and fell from his canoe, he rode on a whale which brought him to a coastal area of New Zealand where, ever since, each of the first-born males amongst Paikea's descendants have in turn become tribal leader.
In the present day, the Maori community has lost its way again as the younger generations flee the old-fashioned authoritarianism of the tribe and the boredom of the village, while those who stay behind are led astray by drugs and crime. So the death of the next male descendant of Paikea, and the departure of his father Parourangi (Cliff Curtis) for Europe, leaves grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) despairing over the survival of the old ways. His surviving grandchild Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is bright, tough, charismatic and in touch with the tribe's history and rituals, but the traditionalist Koro refuses to accept Pai as the next leader of the people because she happens to be a girl. As a pod of whales arrives off the coast, it becomes clear that the old myths are about to resurface.
Niki Caro's 'Whale Rider' presents the conflict between the older and younger generations, man and woman, past and present, localism and foreignness, tradition and change - in other words, all the very stuff of myth. The ancient myth of the whale rider is not so much told as retold, so that the disintegrating community can be brought back together by finding new ways of reconnecting with its past traditions.
'Whale Rider' is both an effective snapshot of the challenges which modernity brings to indigenous cultures, and a neat illustration of the power of myths to adapt. It for the most part avoids excessive sanctimoniousness through earthy characterisation and timely humour - and the acting, from an almost exclusively Maori cast, is a revelation.
In other words, 'Whale Rider' manages to convey all the best qualities of whales - grace, majesty, mystery and community - without ever becoming too big and blubbery.
Anton Bitel, 07/07/03