Whale Rider Witi Ihimaera Essay Writing

Whale Rider is a 2002New Zealand-Germanfamilydrama 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 Māori girl whose ambition is 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 before she was surpassed by Quvenzhané Wallis, at age 9, for Beasts of the Southern Wild less than a decade later. The film earned $41.4 million[3] on a NZ$9,235,000 budget. In 2005 the film was named to the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.


The film's plot follows the story of Paikea Apirana ("Pai"). The leader should be the first-born grandson – a direct patrilineal descendant of Paikea, the Whale Rider – he who rode on top of a whale (Tohora) from Hawaiki. Pai is originally born a twin, but her twin brother, as well as her mother, dies in childbirth. 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 live with her father because her grandfather is mistreating her. She finds that she cannot bear to leave the sea as the whale seems to be calling her back. Pai tells her father to turn the car back and returns home. After the death of his wife and overwhelming pressure from Koro, 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.

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 also calls out to them and they hear her call.

One day Pai finds the rei puta while swimming, 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 southern 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 Koro walks away, Pai 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 wonder if she has drowned, but are relieved when she comes 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. In voiceover, Pai declares, "My name is Paikea Apirana, and I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way back to the Whale Rider. I'm not a prophet, but I know that our people will keep going forward, all together, with all of our strength."


  • Keisha Castle-Hughes as Paikea Apirana
  • Rawiri Paratene as Koro
  • Vicky Haughton as Nanny Flowers
  • Cliff Curtis as Porourangi
  • Grant Roa as Uncle Rawiri
  • Mana Taumaunu as Hemi
  • Rachel House as Shilo
  • Taungaroa Emile as Willie
  • Tammy Davis as Dog
  • Mabel Wharekawa as Maka (as Mabel Wharekawa-Burt)
  • Rawinia Clarke as Miro
  • Tahei Simpson as Miss Parata
  • Roi Taimana as Hemi's Dad (as Roimata Taimana)
  • Elizabeth Skeen as Rehua
  • Tyronne White as Jake (as Tyrone White)
  • Taupua Whakataka-Brightwell as Ropata
  • Tenia McClutchie-Mita as Wiremu
  • Peter Patuwai as Bubba
  • Rutene Spooner as Parekura
  • Riccardo Davis as Maui
  • Apiata Whangaparita-Apanui as Henare
  • John Sumner as Obstetrician
  • Sam Woods as Young Rawiri
  • Pura Tangira as Ace
  • Jane O'Kane as Anne
  • Aumuri Parata-Haua as Baby Paikea


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]


Theatrical release[edit]

Whale Rider was theatrically released on 2003 in New Zealand and Germany.


Whale Rider was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002.

Home media[edit]

Whale Rider was released on DVD and VHS on October 28, 2003 by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.

Shout Factory released a 15th anniversary blu-ray of Whale Rider on their Shout Select imprint on August 22, 2017.


Critical response[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 has also been discussed, and praised, widely within academia. Anthropologist, A. Asbjørn Jøn, discussed a range of Maori tribal traditions that resonate within the film, while noting links between the release of Whale Rider and increases in both New Zealand's whale watching tourism industry and conservation efforts.[16]

Box office[edit]

Whale Rider grossed 6,400,000 [Currency?] in New Zealand and Germany.


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

At the age of 13, 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 held the record until 2012 when Quvenzhané Wallis (at the age of 9) was nominated for that category for the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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:


The film contains music by Lisa Gerrard, released on the album Whalerider on July 7, 2003.


  1. ^"WHALE RIDER (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. 20 February 2003. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  2. ^ abc"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. ^ abcWhale 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. ^ ab"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. 
  16. ^A. Asbjørn Jøn,'The Whale Road: Transitioning from Spiritual Links, to Whaling, to Whale Watching in Aotearoa New Zealand', Australian Folklore: A Yearly Journal in Folklore Studies, 29 (2014), pp.87-116

External links[edit]

The community of Whangara, where the film is set
  • 1

    Describe the relationship between Koro and the old bull whale. Are there parallel? If so, how are they alike? What does each story tell us about the other?

    It seems clear from the story that there are at least some parallels between Koro and the old bull whale. This connection is even explicitly stated by Kahu and referenced by Rawiri. They are alike in terms of being the leader of their herds in changing, trying times. They are bound by love for the past and they are trying to understand how to move forward and live in the future. They are also both stubborn.

  • 2

    Explore the symbolism of the spear. What does the spear represent? What does this symbol mean?

    At one point Kahu is identified as the spear cast into the future. The spears seem to represent life-giving bounty. There is some cultural significance, then, to the tool of the spear beyond just its typical war-bound use.

  • 3

    Does Rawiri experience a coming-of-age trial? What does he learn about himself and his cultural identity from this experience?

    Rawiri’s four year journey through Australia and Papua New Guinea seem to test his cultural identity in variety of ways while also forcing him to make life-long decisions, like where he wants to live and who he wants to associate with. At the same time, he experiences some of the harsh realities of life, like watching a friend die or being the victim of racism. All of these teach him about himself and his strength.

  • 4

    Does Kahu demonstrate the traits of a good leader? If so, which specific traits does she demonstrate?

    Kahu does seem to demonstrate many traits of a good leader. The climactic scene where she leads to whale herd away reveals many of these traits, like bravery, determination, level-headedness, and willingness to self-sacrifice. Other scenes in the book also showcase Kahu with these traits, like the one where she is determined to retrieve the stone.

  • 5

    Pick one scene which provides a deeper characterization of one of the main characters of the story. Explain why this particular scene is important in understanding this character.

    There is a wealth of scenes which deepen characterization. Examples of such scenes include: the climactic scene of Kahu herding the whales; the scene where Nanny is revealed to have been crying over Rawiri’s motorcycle demonstrates her loving nature; and Koro weeping over the death of the first whale herd, demonstrating his care for nature and the pressure he is bearing.

  • 6

    What do the titles of each part suggest in relation to the broader narrative of the story? How does every section correspond to the reality portrayed in that section?

    The titles of the four sections of the book are named after the four seasons. Each name has some relation to the content of the story. For example, spring may represent new life. Winter may represent stagnation. Furthermore, the usage of such a naming system at all suggests a more cyclical view of time rather than a linear view of time.

  • 7

    Write an essay analyzing the ways in which modernity and tradition interact within the story. Does the story suggest that they can interact peacefully? Or does it seem impossible?

    The threads of modernity and tradition run throughout the story. Koro is seen as the main upholder of tradition, and the central crisis of tradition is that those who do know and uphold the tradition are dying off and there are fewer, and fewer people to teach and lead future generations. This is exemplified by Koro’s search for a future leader. The crisis of modernity is that it cuts people off from their natural roots. This is exemplified by Rawiri’s experiences with his cousins in Australia, who feel cut off from their Maori roots.

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