Lowdown: A mystical Maori story of women's liberation.
A few years ago, when Whale Rider was released to the cinemas, it received tons of critical acclaim. It was the film to watch if you considered yourself a sophisticated kind of a guy or if production line American cinema didn't appeal to your sense of intellect. I didn't get to watch it back then; with the aid of my local public library I got to watch it now for free.
The story of this New Zealand made film takes place at a group of New Zealand Maoris. The descendant of a once great leader is having twins, a boy and a girl, with the boy destined to be the future leader; but things don't go well and the mother as well as the boy die at birth. Only the daughter survives, but she survives into a family of a shattered father and a grandfather that doesn't want her - he would prefer another go at having a boy.
The rest of the film follows the adventures of the [young] teen girl as she struggles with her dysfunctional family and with the expectations of the leader she could have been had she been born a boy. The main event here is the struggle between the girl, trying to acquire her grandfather's love, and the grandfather's overall disappointment with his family and with his failure to find his people a suitable leader.
As a film about a dysfunctional family and the conflicts that take place between the various characters in the film, Whale Rider is not bad at all. Whale Rider's problem, however, is that it doesn't settle with being a film about a dysfunctional family; it aspires to be a film that exposes the world to Maori culture, shows us just how great Maori tradition is, and in general - show us that mystical force of the power that ancient culture has in making us feel at home with the world. In that it becomes a very fatalistic film; rest assured [spoiler alert!]: by the end of the film all will be well, and the ancient Maori culture, lost amidst 21st century progress, will find its way back.
In order to achieve its noble goal the film reverts to the contrived. Things happen because they should happen if the plot is to go the way the film wants to go, and mysticism is the rule with people knowing what to do by staring at the sea for prolonged periods. Not that I have something against Maori culture in particular, but come on: ancient cultures have evolved at times when not much has changed between the generations; things have changed lately, though, and there is a good reason why we don't live by those ancient rules anymore. Romanticizing about those ancient times won't do us much good; our attention should be focused on the future, and the future won't be decided through some mystical whale riding leader.
Sadly, in the face of mystical agendas, the basic story about women's right in the Maori culture, which could have been a fascinating one, gets lost. The actress playing the young Maori would be girl leader offers some good acting, but that's all there is to Whale Rider: cutie cutie "look at how this girl can act like a grown up" fascination.
Best scene: While the Whale Rider girl does offer a few scenes of good acting, I found the best thing about the DVD to be the supplemental film called "Cracker Bag". In 15 minutes this short Australian film manages to say much more about what takes us up and what brings us down than Whale Rider.
Picture quality: Good, but there are often inconsistencies with color rendition between scenes.
Sound quality: Pretty ordinary.
Overall: A disappointing 2 stars.