Tales of rising women warriors -- notably women on the cusp of adulthood -- who must work against the resistance of a masculine environment, often tribal or clannish in nature, have arisen in many different forms through history. Spanning from Grecian mythology and the Chinese dynasties of centuries past to the latest animated works of Disney, these stories often hit certain archetypal points in their stories, yet the context of their individual cultures and the nuances of how the heroines tackle the challenges before them bestow specific, expressive meaning upon each one. Cinema has recently embraced a spotlight in terms of empowering female-centered films of this type, though, with the one-two punch of Disney's Moana and Wonder Woman over the past year, which will hopefully draw further attention to films that achieved similar, arguably more potent high points in prior years. Whale Rider, a powerful movie about heritage, mysticism, and a girl harnessing her potential against the odds of a masculine setting, deserves to stand tall among these contemporary reexaminations.
Niki Caro's coming-of-age saga certainly garnered attention when it was released in 2002, earning awards both for the film itself -- it won best feature accolades at the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance Film Festival -- and for Keisha-Castle Hughes portrayal of Paikea, aka Pai. She's the only child of a chieftain's son (Cliff Curtis) from a Whangaran Maori tribe in New Zealand, and a direct descendant of the eponymous "Whale Rider" Paikea, indicating that she's technically next in the bloodline to lead her tribe. The problem, naturally, is that Pai was born a girl instead of a boy, which creates murkiness in terms of how she's to be raised and trained in the ways of leadership. As her grandfather, tradition-oriented elder Koro (Rawiri Paratene), establishes a cultural school for the other young men of the tribe, preparing them to be chieftains, Pai tries to learn as much as she can on her own accord and assert herself as equally as capable as her male contemporaries, while also dealing with the absence of her estranged, traveling father.
Whale Rider quickly and passionately immerses the audience in the cultural dynamics of the tribespeople, asserting the significance of preserving legacy and of the necessities for male offspring in terms of hierarchal leadership. This occurs in the intimacy of a hospital room, though, surrounding the birth of Paikea and the melancholy circumstances that lead to her being an only child, driven by firm yet comprehensible conversations that pit the elders' concerns of their lineage against the real-world emotional challenges of her place amongst the tribe. While these are themes well explored in other stories, Caro's screenplay -- an adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's novel of the same name -- smartly navigates the disappointment, the chastisement, and the begrudging acceptance with a lack of expectation and certainty over what'll come of this. And that's just within the first, introductory scene, but it's a property that flows along with the rest of the film, the burden on the shoulders of the young girl whom soon emerges on the screen coasting on a bicycle.
As Paikea, Keisha Castle-Hughes projects the promising attributes of an admirable would-be leader, showing initiative toward the Maori rituals without being provoked and leading ceremonies with her confident poise. There's a lot of emotional intelligence within Pai, which can be surprising upon her reactions to seeing her father after a long absence and to her grandfather's changing attitude toward her. Through Castle-Hughes' commanding eyes and heartening body language, there's no doubting the young girl's potential to transform into the kind of leader her people might need in the modern era, whose enthusiasm and respect for the culture comes from something voluntary and deeper than the tribes' desperation to persevere. Unlike other stories featuring reluctant young leaders who must "come of age" to accept and fully appreciate their role, Pai embraces her birthright while also waging a mini-war with the elders -- her grandfather -- to assert her worthiness, and it's only through Castle-Hughes' layered portrayal of her dedication that those cultural and emotional nuances are plainly visible.
Much of Whale Rider ebbs and flows with the importance of Pai's innate connection to her ancestors, but there's more going on in her tale than mere acknowledgement of her lineage, hinged on the mysticism of generational prophecy and the depths of her people's connection to the sea. Like every other aspect of Niki Caro's film, this otherworldly component is handled with restraint and surprising impact, first emerging in a simple scene of Pai gazing upon the blue expanses of her home and feeling an unexplainable, important lure preventing her from venturing far from her tribespeople. The essence of Maori lifeforces looming in their communal hall and the significance placed upon the retrieval of a tribal necklace provide an undercurrent of spirituality throughout, handled by director Caro in a fashion that feels ever-present yet doesn't intrude upon the story on a respectably grounded level. While Pai secretly trains in speechcraft, ceremonial posturing, and wielding a wooden staff as her tribal brothers stumble over the same tasks, the omnipresence of ancestral fate and responsibility palpably stirs around her.
Absorbed on their own, the elements that make up Whale Rider form into a tender, complex portrayal of cultural obligation and coming-of-age resilience, but the magic of Niki Caro's film only truly rises to the surface once they all rush together into its breathtaking conclusion. Because of writer/director Caro's clever navigation -- and subversion -- of Pai's interactions with her people and their heritage, certain expectations about where her heroic journey's headed veer into uncertain territory, despite being a family-oriented film with seemingly clear objectives and tonal paths. With splendid, unpretentious beachside cinematography juxtaposed with a deeply expressive tribal display occurring indoors, featuring a tear-eyed Keisha Castle-Hughes standing front-and-center in ritual garb, the story's brave finale mixes personal catharsis with smartly-handled spiritualism and poetic imagery into something even more profound. Whale Rider's a beautifully meaningful piece of cinema beforehand, but it becomes a masterclass by its end because of how far Paikea's willing to go.
Video and Audio:
While Whale Rider does have a few bold artistic moments that make a splash in its cinematography, most of Niki Caro's film focus on the natural, raw beauty of the New Zealand coastline, the ornate wood ambience of their tribal gathering spot, and nuanced close-ups during conversations and tribal dances. Shout Factory's transfer, which looks to come from the same or a similar source as Buena Vista's Australian release from a few years back, fluctuates between dazzling beauty and being anchored by digital issues. Daytime sequences project lush, beautiful greens and crisp blues through a faintly tan-leaning palette, making those shades appear somewhat warm yet appropriate with the rest of the image, but there's a distinct lack of filmic texture to many of them, resulting in some flatness. Darker sequences routinely preserve all the details within, even complex sequences on the beach, but they also emphasize a lot of heavy grain and compression issues. Ornate details in carvings, makeup, and garments are frequently well-etched and digitally sound, but there's also some digitally messy contours and some aliasing along a few rooftops. The beauty, especially the underwater whale sequences, vastly outclass the handful of problems, resulting in a flawed but ultimately satisfying transfer for Whale Rider.
Very little to complain about with the DTS-HD Master Audio track, though, encompassed in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track whose strength, crispness, and lower-end response seems like it's taken a step above prior sound presentations of Whale Rider. The gorgeous, energetic soundtrack commands a hefty and well-balanced presence across the surround stage, responsible for the bulk of the rear-channel activity. Back-end response isn't in terribly high supply, adding little ambience during rushing waves or tribal performances, mostly containing the activity to the front channels. The clarity that comes from the core of the track is superb, though, potently delivery every nuance of New Zealand-accented dialogue with razor-sharp precision, delightful midrange tempo, and a wonderful grasp on the echoes of the environment, while the crack of staves against one another and the splashing of waves embraces sharp high-end response. Whale Rider sound phenomenal. Optional English subs are available.
Shout Factory remain diligent in their effort to gather together as many applicable extras as possible for their releases. That wasn't much of a chore this time around, as this 15th Anniversary Blu-ray merely duplicates the prior extras -- beat-for-beat from the DVD release and Australia's Blu-ray -- without anything new added on. In a way, that's both good and bad, as Niki Caro's illuminating, yet gently-paced Audio Commentary and the nearly half-hour featurette Behind-the-Scenes of Whale Rider (27:02, 16x9) service the film well. Director Caro's commentary largely strays from narrating the plot and focuses on the craftsmanship involved, offering anecdotes about the culture, the filming process, and Keisha Castle-Hughes. The behind-the-scenes extras certainly possesses a vintage, press-kit feel to its narration clip structure, but the interviews with Niki Caro, the producers, and the cast robustly cover the original novel, the main actors and their respective roles, and blending "the natural with the supernatural".
A few other extras have also emerged from Shout Factory, including Building the Canoe (11:15, 4x3 Letterbox), which chronicles the production aspects of building the ceremonial vessel, a series of eight Deleted Scenes With Optional Commentary (8:33, 4x3 Letterbox), a Keisha Castle-Hughes Screen Test (6:11, 16x9 HD). and an in-motion Photo and Art Gallery (1:57, HD). Rounding things out are a Theatrical Trailer (2:57, 16x9 HD) and a few TV Spots (2:37, 4x3 HD). Admittedly, it's a bit disappointing to not have a retrospective with Keisha Castle-Hughes and/or Niki Caro included on this anniversary Blu-ray release, especially given Shout Factory's reputation for doing so, but the supplements available are entirely satisfying.
Whale Rider made waves when it was released a decade and a half ago, and the beauty of its craftsmanship and the strength of its messages remain just as poignant and dynamic in the current era ... if not more so. Embedded within Paikea's trials toward becoming a Maori leader amid a male-dominated culture lies a beautifully interwoven blend of heritage, supernatural belief, and female empowerment, commanded by the effortlessly captivating essence of Maori tradition and by Keisha Castle-Hughes' versatile, poignant turn as Paikea. Here's hoping that the popularity of this New Zealand gem will continue to grow in response to similarly invigorating stories that have been recently released. Shot Factory's Select release boasts familiar, yet strong audiovisual properties and extras, making this a Highly Recommended package for a tremendous film.