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Summary and Main Characters
Whale Rider is a story about a young Maori girl, Pai, who is destined to be the leader of the tribe but her grandfather, Koro, does not recognize it. As the leader is traditionally male, Koro thinks that his granddaughter cannot inherit the leadership. Nevertheless, Pai is dedicated to achieving her aim; she attends taiaha lessons secretly and, later, wins the taiaha tournament and recovering the whale tooth, proving that she can become the chief.
At the end of the story, the girl proves herself again by straddling the largest whale; Koro declares her the leader. The main characters of the film are Pai, her grandfather, his wife, Nanny Flowers, Pai’s father, Porourangi, and her uncle, Rawiri. Nanny’s role is to support the girl in achieving her goal while negotiating with her grandfather. Porourangi’s aim is to reveal that the girl is dedicated to being with her people and improving their lives when she offers her to leave with him. Rawiri is significant as he teaches Pai to use ancient warrior techniques. Koro’s role is to motivate the girl to show her leadership capacities.
It is possible to outline several significant themes of the story. The confrontation between tradition and modernity is one of them. Maori people adhere to traditions that are outdated and should be revised because they cause irrational opinions, such as that only men can be leaders. Another major theme is love; Nanny’s love for Pai allows her to believe in the girl and be supportive of her, and Koro’s love for his people inspires him to find the best leader for the tribe.
Issues and Conflicts
Pai’s grandfather initially rejected her because he was angry at the death of his grandson and thought that the girl is “useless” as she could not become the leader (Whale Rider). The conflict between these characters is the main one of the story. Pai’s father, Porourangi, left because he did not want to become the chief as grief had distanced him from the tribe both physically and emotionally.
On the contrary, Koro’s expectations of his son were that Porourangi would become his successor, which caused a conflict and led to Pai’s father leaving. Pai’s uncle lived a modern lifestyle as opposed to the traditional one; he attended parties, watched television, and was interested in hip-hop. At the same time, he is as skilled as Porourangi but cannot become a leader because he is not the oldest son. His history and life reflect that traditions of the tribe are outdated; Rawiri represents the transition of old traditional New Zealand to the modern country.
Changes in Characters
Of all the characters in the film, Koro changes the most. In the beginning, he is stubborn and refuses to see Pai as the future chief. He ignores the fact that she is more skillful than other boys in the tribe and is blinded by his duty to choose a male leader. However, his attitude changes towards the end of the film as he realizes that Pai is the new leader while she is riding the whale into the sea. Koro’s facial expression shows that he is ready to accept his granddaughter and change his stereotypical opinion. Pai’s character changes too as she transforms from an outcast to the new leader of the tribe. Other characters remain stable as they have an important role in enforcing changes in others.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Two rituals and ceremonies are a taiaha tournament and the task of recovering a whale tooth. Koro believes that training the boys in these ceremonies will prepare them for their role as a leader and reveal their strengths. These rituals and ceremonies are very important to Pai’s grandfather because, with their help, he hopes to identify the next leader through teaching warrior techniques and tribal lore.
One of the main symbolic scenes in the film is the one where the big whale strands itself onto the shore. To Maori people, it is the spiritual warning and the sign that they should return the animal into the sea. When Pai swims out to the whale and coaxes it, her destiny of being the leader becomes evident. Another symbolic scene is where Koro breaks the rope, symbolizing his power. However, Pai manages to start the engine without his help, which shows that she is also powerful and strong.
How Conflicts Were Resolved
The main conflicts of the film are between Pai and her grandfather, as well as Koro and Porourangi when the man refuses to become the chief and leaves. The first conflict is only resolved when the Koro sees the evidence that the girl is ready to become the leader when she manages to return the whale into the sea. The second conflict can be considered resolved when Porourangi returns to Whangara and celebrates Pai’s status as a chief.
My overall reaction to the film is positive as it allowed me to learn about Maori traditions and culture, as well as aspects associated with them. It is possible to say that the movie is related to current issues around culture as, sometimes, adhering to traditions may lead to difficulties. For example, some populations believe that women should have fewer rights than men and follow their conventional role. The movie shows that traditions should be respected but the modern approach may also be important.
Whale Rider. Directed by Niki Caro, South Pacific Pictures, 2002.