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Legend holds that centuries ago, Paikea the Whale Rider, traveled on the back of a whale to the remote New Zealand coastline. There on the rocky shore, he became the first to inhabit the land where his descendents now live. His people have honored him ever since by choosing the first-born male offspring of his bloodline to lead their little tribe.
For Chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the anticipated arrival of his daughter-in-law's twins ensures the tribal legacy will live on--a man-child to lead the Maori clan. But tragedy strikes when mother and son die in childbirth leaving only a surviving infant daughter. Koro's own son, Porourangi (Cliff Curtis), next in line to serve as chief, abdicates his role and flees from the village shattered by the loss of his wife and baby. In his anguish, he forsakes Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), to be raised by her grandparents.
Embittered by the choice of his son, and angry at the ill fate that would spare only the female, Koro cannot forgive Pai's for robbing his hopes of a future leader. Instead he blames her for the start of trouble among his people---a once mighty group who now struggle to eke out an existence in an era where the past and present clash almost daily.
Only Nanny Flowers (Vicky Haughton) recognizes the character strength and leadership traits that are budding in the young abandoned girl. Under the grandmother's tender care, Pai finds some relief from the grave disappointment she senses in her grandfather as she tries to earn his affection.
Finally determined to find a successor, Koro gathers the local boys for training in the ancient ways. Relegated to watching on the sidelines, Pai is finally given a chance to prove herself when a pod of whales beach themselves on the sand below the town.
Moving at the gentle pace of a calm ocean tide (for some, that equals slow), Whale Rider looks at the traditions and expectations that guide the lives of Koro and his people and the conflict that surges to the surface when those mores are challenged. Contrasting the cultural past with modern lifestyles, it also explores the qualities of a leader that are inherent regardless of gender or privilege.
Relative to other PG-13 offerings, the film's content issues are few, but do include some brief strong language, a short reference to drug use, drinking among the locals and some adult and pre-teen smoking. Parents should also note a scene involving childbirth.
Filmed in New Zealand, the movie offers scenic vistas and an introduction to the amazing talents of first-time actress Keisha Castle-Hughes. More importantly, it provides hope that every generation will come with resilient individuals ready and capable of assuming their role as leaders among their peers.
Whale Rider is rated PG-13: