3 Stars – Thought-Provoking

The Maori tribe of New Zealand has an ancient religious belief that their ancestor, Paikea, came to their new land riding the back of the whale Tohora.  The belief is that in every generation, a leader will arise among the Maori who has Paikea’s ability to communicate with the whale and provide their generation with protection, guidance and unity.  This spiritual message is retold in moving form in Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider.”

As the film tells it, the problem is that the Maori have forgotten their ancient ways and they no longer seem to believe in their religion.  The hope of their chief, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), is that he will have a son who has the ability to communicate with the whales and bring the tribe together in unity.  When his son is unable to do so, this hope is passed on to his grandson.  But when the grandson, a twin, dies at birth, only his twin sister Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) lives.  This sole female survivor of the chief’s lineage creates confusion in their patriarchal world.

Koro’s son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), leaves New Zealand and is estranged from his father, daughter and tribe.  As chief, Koro rejects Pai and assumes that she is not the wise leader he seeks, although his wife tries to convince him to accept his granddaughter and give her a chance.  All are caught up in a struggle that almost costs Pai her life.

As a retelling of an ancient legend, the messages are universal.  Parents and grandparents often place expectations on children that seem impossible to fulfill – symbolized in this story by the ability to communicate with whales.  In spite of placing such impossible expectations on their children, at the same time, parents are afraid that their lives will be failures unless their children succeed.  While focusing on these demands, parents often miss the unique spark in their children and grandchildren and must be shown that it is not until their children and grandchildren become who they are created to be that harmony and unity is restored.  In this story, resolution is accomplished in a most explicit way that brings the fable to its climactic end.

However, the spiritual messages in the film are primitive.  The worship of whales and learning to pray to them for protection, guidance and unity is combined with the belief in the protection of ancestors, whose lives the tribe now embodies.  Worshiping the creature rather than the Creator is a primitive form of religion found throughout the world.  Rather than expressing our need for protection, guidance and unity in prayer to the Creator, this form of religion struggles to gain help from creation and its natural wonders.

When taken as a child’s fable, “Whale Rider” is filled with the wonders of imaginative interactions with animals.  But if its spirituality is taken seriously, it is lacking in wisdom and depth.


  1. When Pai is rejected for being a girl and therefore cannot be the leader of the tribe, her gifts and abilities are not taken into consideration.  How often do you think our prejudices keep us from seeing the true abilities of others?
  2. The ability of Pai to communicate with the whales is at first seen as causing a tragedy when they are beached.  Do you believe this was to set the stage for the proving of her ability to “ride the whales” or not?  Was their lack of desire to live a symbolic representation of the Maori tribe’s decline?
  3. Do you believe Koro’s treatment of his son and granddaughter was abusive?  What about his teaching of the “students” of his school?
  4. What do you think would have happened to this tribe had they been given the opportunity to know of the Creator and His Son, Jesus?

For an understanding of the designation of the Maori beliefs as “Primitive Religion” see the explanation of this religion at:  http://wri.leaderu.com/wri-table2/primitive.html

Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 3 STARS, THOUGHT-PROVOKING.