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Whale Rider

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Title: Whale Rider  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Niki Caro, Cinema of New Zealand, Seattle International Film Festival, 8th Golden Satellite Awards, Cliff Curtis
Collection: 2000S Drama Films, 2002 Films, English-Language Films, Feminist Films, Films About Whales, Films Based on New Zealand Novels, Films Directed by Niki Caro, Films Set in New Zealand, Films Shot in New Zealand, German Coming-of-Age Films, German Drama Films, German Films, Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film Winners, Māori-Language Films, New Zealand Coming-of-Age Films, New Zealand Drama Films, New Zealand Films, New Zealand Independent Films, Sundance Film Festival Award Winners
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Whale Rider

Whale Rider
Theatrical 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 See Cast
Narrated by Keisha Castle-Hughes
Music by Lisa Gerrard
Cinematography Leon Narbey
Edited by David Coulson
South Pacific Pictures
Pandora Films
New Zealand Film Production Fund
New Zealand Film Commission
New Zealand On Air
Filmstiftung Nordrhein-Westfalen
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 (also known as The Whale Rider) is a 2002 New Zealand-German family 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 theatrical release in 2003 by Pandora Film and Newmarket Films. 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. Whale Rider was released on DVD and VHS on October 28, 2003 by Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment.


  • Plot 1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
  • Release 4
    • Theatrical release 4.1
    • Premiere 4.2
    • Home media 4.3
  • Reception 5
    • Critical response 5.1
    • Box office 5.2
    • Awards 5.3
  • Soundtrack 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


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 find the rei puta signifying that she is the rightful leader while catching a lobster for Koro's tea. 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. 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 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]


Theatrical release

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


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

Home media

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


Critical response

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]

Box office

Whale Rider grossed 6,400,000 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:



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  3. ^ a b c Whale Rider at Box Office Mojo
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External links

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