In Niki Caro’s Whale Rider, the apparent heir to the Ngati Konohi people dies at birth, survived by the cute Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), whose grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) won’t cut her any slack because she has a vagina. The ogre drives the girl out of her way to mess with the very sacred things (singing and fighting with a Taiaha stick) he teaches the chubby, nondescript boys of the neighborhood. When a group of whales wash up on shore, Pai saves the day, sticks it to her grandfather, and everyone’s faith in their religion is dubiously restored. Niki Caro’s feeble-minded creation predictably wowed midlife critics who approached it as a Maori history lesson. Not surprisingly, this pristine-looking soap opera has very little to say about the mythmaking people. In focusing on the maudlin divots of Koro’s relationship with Pai, she only ends up trivializing notions of faith and hope. Koro makes repeated reference to the heir that will bring his people “out of the darkness,” but Caro seems less concerned with evoking the economic or socio-political baggage bringing the film’s characters down than she is with telling the same sappy tale of patriarchal perseverance we’ve seen so many times before. Some of the film’s gorgeous vistas and underwater sequences are possessed by a splendor that brings to mind an untainted, primordial fairy tale that doesn’t carry over to the rest of the film. Make no mistake: Whale Rider is essentially The Karate Kid Down Under.
Skip to chapter five ("Te Waka") and check out the ocean vistas of the film. This beautiful transfer wondrously preserves the dreamy, pastel color palette of the film, and the Dolby Digital 5.0 is so soothing and non-intrusive that the whole of Whale Rider could cure insomnia.
First up is a commentary track by Niki Caro, who (perhaps not surprisingly) focuses less on the culture of the film than the technical aspects of the production (she points out during the film's opening hospital sequence the "great example of widescreen"). Far better is the 27-minute, behind-the-scenes doc that features some awesome footage of the final whale sequence and the lovely Keisha Castle-Hughes declaring how she underplayed her fear during the shooting of the scene. Also included here is the film's theatrical trailer, five TV spots, eight deleted scenes (all cut from the film for time and flow, though some flesh out certain characters) with optional commentary, a brief "Te Waka: Building the Canoe" featurette, a soundtrack showcase and an art and photo gallery.
Make no mistake: Whale Rider is essentially The Karate Kid Down Under. Looks good but smells cheesy.