Whale Rider

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Whale Rider
Whale Rider movie poster.jpg
US release poster
Directed by Niki Caro
Produced by John Bartnett
Frank Hübner
Tim Sanders
Screenplay by Niki Caro
Based on The Whale Rider 
by Witi Ihimaera
Starring Keisha Castle-Hughes
Rawiri Paratene
Vicky Haughton
Cliff Curtis
Music by Lisa Gerrard
Cinematography Leon Narbey
Edited by David Coulson
South Pacific Pictures
Pandora Films
Distributed by Pandora Film (Germany)
Newmarket Films (US)
Release dates
  • 9 September 2002 (2002-09-09) (Toronto)
  • 30 January 2003 (2003-01-30) (New Zealand)
  • 25 July 2003 (2003-07-25) (Germany)
Running time
101 minutes [1]
Country New Zealand
Language English
Budget NZ$$9,235,000[2]
(approx. US $3.5 million)[3]
Box office $41.4 million[3]

Whale Rider is a 2002 New Zealand-German drama film directed by Niki Caro, based on the novel of the same name by Witi Ihimaera. The film stars Keisha Castle-Hughes as Kahu Paikea Apirana, a twelve-year-old Maori girl who wants to become the chief of the tribe. Her grandfather Koro believes that this is a role reserved for males only.

The film was a coproduction between New Zealand and Germany. It was shot on location in Whangara, the setting of the novel.

The world premiere was on 9 September 2002, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film received critical acclaim upon its release. At age 13, Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest nominee for the Academy Award for Best Actress.


The film's plot follows the story of Paikea Apirana ("Pai") [In the book, her name is Kahu, short for Kahutia Te Rangi].The leader should be the first-born grandson – a direct patrilineal descendant of Paikea, aka Kahutia Te Rangi in the book, the Whale Rider – he who rode on top of a whale from Hawaiki. However, Pai is female and technically cannot inherit the leadership.

While her grandfather, Koro, later forms an affectionate bond with his granddaughter, carrying her to school every day on his bicycle, he also condemns her and blames her for conflicts happening within the tribe. At one point Paikea decides to leave with her father because her grandfather is mistreating her. However she finds that she cannot bear to leave the sea as the whale seems to be calling her back, she tells her father to turn the car back and returns home. Pai's father refuses to assume traditional leadership; instead he moves to Germany to pursue a career as an artist. Pai herself is interested in the leadership, learning traditional songs and dances, but is given little encouragement by her grandfather. Pai feels that she can become the leader, although there's no precedent for a woman to do so, and is determined to succeed.

Koro leads a cultural school for the village boys, hoping to find a new leader. He teaches the boys to use a taiaha (fighting stick). This is traditionally reserved for males. However, Nanny tells Pai that her second son, Pai's uncle, had won a taiaha tournament in his youth while he was still slim, so Pai secretly learns from him. She also secretly follows Koro's lessons. One of the students, Hemi, is also sympathetic towards her, but Koro is enraged when he finds out, particularly when she wins her taiaha fight against Hemi. Koro's relationship with Pai erodes further when none of the boys succeed at the traditional task of recovering the rei puta (whale tooth) that he threw into the ocean – this mission would prove one of them worthy of becoming leader. With the loss of the rei puta, Koro in despair calls out the Ancient ones, the whales. In an attempt to help, Pai from the beach also calls out to them and they hear her call. One day while out in the boat with her aunt and uncle, Pai swims to catch a lobster and finds the rei puta signifying that she is the rightful leader.

Pai, in an attempt to bridge the rift that has formed, invites Koro to be her guest of honour at a concert of Māori chants that her school is putting on. Unknown to all, she had won an inter-school speech contest with a touching dedication to Koro and the traditions of the village. However, Koro was late, and as he was walking to the school, he notices that numerous right whales are beached near Pai's home. The entire village attempts to coax and drag them back into the water, but all efforts prove unsuccessful; even a tractor does not help. Koro sees it as a sign of his failure and despairs further. He admonishes Pai against touching the largest whale because "she has done enough damage" with her presumption. Also, the largest whale traditionally belongs to the legendary Paikea. When Pai's grandfather, Koro, walks away from the scene, she climbs onto the back of the largest whale at the location and coaxes it to re-enter the ocean. The whale leads the entire pod back into the sea; Pai submerges completely underwater, and the spectators had wondered if she'd drowned, but were relieved when she came back above sea level. When she goes out to sea, Nanny shows Koro the whale tooth which Pai had previously recovered. When Pai is found and brought to the hospital, Koro declares her the leader and asks her forgiveness. The film ends with Pai's father, grandparents, and uncle coming together to celebrate her status as the new leader, as the finished waka is hauled into the sea for its maiden voyage.



The community of Whangara, where the film is set

The film had budget of NZ$9,235,000.[2] It received $2.5 million from the New Zealand Film Production Fund.[2] Additional financing came from ApolloMedia, Filmstiftung NRW, the New Zealand Film Commission and NZ On Air.[4]

Casting director Diana Rowan visited numerous schools to find an actress to play Pai. 10,000 children were auditioned before narrowing it down to 12. Castle-Hughes impressed Caro in the resulting workshop and was cast as Pai.[5]

The film was shot in Whangara on the East Coast of New Zealand's North Island and in Auckland.[6] Producer John Barnett said "This novel was set in Whangara and it would almost have been heresy to shoot anywhere else. There are very physical things that are described in the book – the sweep of the bay, the island that looks like a whale, the meeting houses, the number of houses that are present and of course, the people whose legend we were telling. [...] If we'd gone somewhere else and tried to manufacture the surroundings and the ambience, then I think it would have been noticeable in the picture."[7]

The whale beaching was depicted using full scale models created by Auckland, New Zealand based Glasshammer visual effects.[8]

The 60-foot waka seen at the end of the film was made in two halves in Auckland before being transported to Whangara. The waka was given to the Whangara community after filming concluded.[5]

Critical reception[edit]

The film received critical acclaim and Castle-Hughes's performance won rave reviews. Based on 144 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an overall approval rating from critics of 90%, with an average score of 7.7 as of June 2010.[9] By comparison, Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 top reviews from mainstream critics, calculated an average score of 79, based on 31 reviews.[10]

Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton of The Movie Show both gave the film four out of five stars. Pomeranz said "Niki Caro has directed this uplifting story with great sensitivity, eliciting affecting performances from a sterling cast, and a wonderful one from newcomer Keisha Castle- Hughes."[11] Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and said, "The genius of the movie is the way it sidesteps all of the obvious cliches of the underlying story and makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving." He said of Castle-Hughes: "This is a movie star." [12] Ebert later went on to name it as one of the best ten films of 2003.[13] The Los Angeles Times '​s Kenneth Turan praised Caro for her "willingness to let this story tell itself in its own time and the ability to create emotion that is intense without being cloying or dishonest."[14] Claudia Puig of USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Castle-Hughes' acting, saying "so effectively does she convey her pained confusion through subtle vocal cues, tentative stance and expressive dark eyes."[15]


The film won a number of international film-festival awards, including:

Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance, becoming the youngest actress ever nominated for the award at that time. She was 13 years old at the time.

Academy Awards:

Chicago Film Critics Association:

Image Awards:

Independent Spirit Awards:

  • Best Foreign Film (winner)

New Zealand Film Awards:

  • Best Film
  • Best Director (Niki Caro)
  • Best Actress (Keisha Castle-Hughes)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Cliff Curtis)
  • Best Supporting Actress (Vicky Haughton)
  • Best Juvenile Performer (Mana Taumanu)
  • Best Screenplay (Niki Caro)
  • Best Original Score (Lisa Gerrard)
  • Best Costume Design (Kirsty Cameron)

Satellite Awards

Screen Actors Guild:

Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association:


  1. ^ "WHALE RIDER (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 20 February 2003. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c "Film Fund 1 Interim Report" (Press release). New Zealand Film Commission. 18 May 2009. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Whale Rider at Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ "Whale Rider To Debut In Toronto" (Press release). South Pacific Pictures. 5 July 2010. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  5. ^ a b "Production notes" (Press release). South Pacific Pictures. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  6. ^ "Technicals" (Press release). South Pacific Pictures. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  7. ^ "Notes about the location" (Press release). South Pacific Pictures. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  8. ^ "Glasshammer visual effects production photos". Retrieved 23 January 2012 
  9. ^ "Whale Rider (2003)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 6 June 2012. 
  10. ^ "Whale Rider reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 
  11. ^ Pomeranz, Margaret; Stratton, David (2003). "Review: Whale Rider". The Movie Show (Special Broadcasting Service). Archived from the original on 11 April 2004. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (20 June 2003). "Whale Rider review". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  13. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Ebert's Top Movies of 2003". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  14. ^ Turan, Kenneth (6 June 2003). "'Whale Rider' movie review". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 5 July 2010. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 
  15. ^ Puig, Claudia (6 June 2010). "Haunting 'Whale Rider' revisits a timeless legend". USA Today. Archived from the original on 4 July 2010. Retrieved 4 July 2010. 

External links[edit]