At this crowd pleaser's core lies a very familiar high-concept pitch: girl versus boys. This conflict is ubiquitous these days, from rush-hour traffic (note the "goddess" bumper sticker on the SUV that enthusiastically cuts you off without signaling) to our current plethora of cinematic entertainments wherein females kick, punch, leap, and shoot to prove quién es más macho. Our focal point is Paikea (wunderkind discovery Keisha Castle-Hughes), a pre-teen Maori girl so named by her bohemian father, Porourangi (Hollywood staple Cliff Curtis), after an even more significant ancestor than his own ancient namesake. The original Paikea is believed -- by the Ngati Konohi tribe of Whangara, New Zealand -- to have brought new life to their shores a thousand years prior, arriving astride a whale. Paikea's noble, nautical cavort is commemorated in a woodcarving atop the local marae, or meeting house, affording the tribe its identity and the story its title.
The film, which eventually takes on a modestly mythic quality, begins with mortal tragedy as Porourangi's wife dies in childbirth, taking baby Paikea's male twin with her. Heartbroken, Porourangi flees to Germany to practice his arts and crafts, leaving Paikea to be raised by her whip-smart grandmother Nanny Flowers (energetic Vicky Haughton) and sternly traditionalist, unrepentantly sexist grandfather Koro Apirana (terrific Rawiri Paratene, working wonders with a challenging role). Her culturally resonant name shortened to Pai, the girl spends much of her childhood striving to earn Koro's acceptance and respect, which he withholds out of profound disappointment that she is not a boy he can train to take over as the next rangatira, or tribal chief.
Quite unlike Witi Ihimaera's poetic 1987 novel The Whale Rider, this adaptation by Niki Caro (Memory and Desire) focuses almost exclusively on the struggle between Koro and Pai. The elder's quest for the perfect boy-chief turns him into a sort of deranged Mr. Miyagi, while Pai desperately seeks to enter both his training courses and his deeper affections. This enhanced focus prompts many alterations, including the excising of much delicious whale mythology and interaction that would have required a fantasist in the director's chair. But Caro's adaptation -- particularly coming from a white woman -- is hugely satisfying. Caro relates Maori sensibilities and culture with great affection and aplomb -- don't miss the elder busybodies or Pai's truly amazing turn at a school pageant -- delivering a film as important yet generally more audience-friendly than 1997's Once Were Warriors.
Vain attempts at nitpicking aside, there are many lovely elements involved here, from the score to the wholly enjoyable cast to Caro's sensuous directorial gifts, which splendidly balance human foibles with elemental forces. The climax and conclusion are fairly predictable, but there's a telling scene in the middle in which Koro likens the rope of his boat's motor to his ancestry, only to have the threads snap in his hands. Pai's simple solution -- to retie the rope and start the motor, to reconnect to the sea, and ultimately to take whale movies way beyond Orca, Free Willy, or even that Star Trek flick -- focuses the power of interconnectedness in a seemingly routine gesture. It also reveals Caro's skill as a filmmaker, as her Whale Rider most often delivers the feeling of a dream one wishes would come true.