Whale Rider

The story of Whale Rider is about Pai, a girl descended from Paikea, the mythical ancestor of Ngati Konohi hapu (sub tribe) who live in Whangara on the East Coast of New Zealand. Paikea is said to have arrived from their place of origin, Hawaikii, on the back of a whale.

Whale Rider – film commentary


The song of a whale calls through deep water as the huge mammal swims far below the surface of the ocean. At the same time a woman labours in childbirth.


Boy and girl twins are born to a young Maori couple living in Whangara on the East Coast of New Zealand. These opening shots of the film Whale Rider, accompanied by the voice over of a girl, create a sense of portent, a sense that more than usual is at stake in this particular birth.


“In the old days the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting to be filled, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader…. our ancestor Paikea. But now we were waiting for the first born of the new generation…. My brother died and took our mother with him … He died and I didn’t”.


The story of Whale Rider is about Pai, a girl descended from Paikea, the mythical ancestor of Ngati Konohi hapu (sub tribe) who live in Whangara on the East Coast of New Zealand. Paikea is said to have arrived from their place of origin, Hawaikii, on the back of a whale.


Pai’s grandfather, her koro, is looking for a successor to the leadership of the tribe which has become fragmented. Many of the people have taken up with European panaceas - tobacco, drugs, alcohol, city entertainment – to replace the loss of spirit and meaning that follow colonisation.



Koro’s son, Pororangi, has disappointed him by leaving to become an artist in Germany, and, despite his son and dead wife’s insistence on giving the surviving twin, Pai, the name of the tribe’s ancestor, he will not countenance a girl succeeding to his position as chief.


Koro tries to pass on his knowledge to the first born males in the village and is plagued by the persistence of his grand daughter in covertly learning the lore and practices reserved only for males of the tribe.


The boys fail the final test of retrieving a whale tooth from the sea bed.  An underwater shot of two boys fighting over the tooth one of them has retrieved seems to underline the limitations of masculine competitiveness. But Pai succeeds, a fact her koro learns later after his grand daughter has helped a stranded pod of whales return to the ocean.

The old bull whale responds to her voice and touch, as he did eons past to her ancestor, Paikea, and he leads his “people” back to the depths of the ocean.


The human drama of guilt, rejection, love, courage and redemption plays in a New Zealand, Maori context against a backdrop, which is both natural and concrete, supernatural and mystical.


The natural world of the tribe living on the East Coast of New Zealand blends with the mystical realm of sea and whales, the world of the “ancient ones”, of the ancestors, images from the collective unconscious whose archetypes Jung thought were innate patterns in the human psyche.


The sea and whales form a larger context, which provides an image for the depth and intensity of the emotions, powerful forces, which are enacted through the specifics of the characters and story.  These are the elements which give the film the universal quality many have spoken of.


The universal, “mythic dimension” of Whale Rider, mentioned by reviewers such as Paula Morris, in Cineaste, Winter 2003, invites closer examination, particularly given the film's popular acclaim.


The whale itself is a richly mythical image, hefty with blubber and muscle, a source of food and bone for carving. But this whale is not for literal eating.


The food is rather symbolic. It offers new meaning to be digested, understood and incorporated by individuals and a tribe in transition.


It offers new psychological and cultural land, a new way of living in the world, and rejuvenation for a chief and his people. There is in fact an island off the coast of Whangara which resembles a whale.


The whale is connected in western, Pacific and Asian cultures with the dragon, with the hero’s journey, with trials of death and rebirth.  It is a heart beating in the ocean, the promise of new life waiting to be born; the ancient knowledge of renewal inscribed in our human bones.


The whale is a cosmophore, an archetypal image, like the turtle and the elephant, which signify stability and a sound base.


It is a creature of the Great Mother and of Tangaroa, Maori god of the sea, connected to images of the feminine and the masculine. As container the whale recalls the grail, the ark, vessel, womb and waka.


As a symbol of higher consciousness it inhabits the sea like the full moon in the night sky, denoting feminine “yin” power, and fertility.  As an active masculine, “yang” element it is contained in the world womb and lends its power to new definitions in the human world.


The whale represents a source of consciousness for every character in the film. This is new, psychological land to be reclaimed, and s/he who does the initial act of reclaiming has to be ready to die symbolically to bring about the change.


The girl child, Pai, on the threshold of adolescence, and leadership of her tribe, is prepared for the death of her younger self as she sounds on the back of the bull whale. 


Emotional congruency is a strength in the work of director, Nicky Caro, and this resonates throughout the film in the acting, and in the simple, restrained way the story is told.  Myths, when told powerfully, connect with the deeper, emotionally charged layers of the human psyche. The specifics of the Maori story seem both strange and familiar.


The universal themes and emotions many have responded to are conveyed through the authenticity of these specifics. This was achieved through the collaboration and mutual respect of the people of Ngati Konohi and the film crew.


The struggle for renewal and re-integration after a period of sterility and chaos are strong themes in the film, pertinent to the people of Whangara, to other social groups, and individuals the world over.


The universality of Whale Rider invites cross-cultural associations. The rite of passage of the hero Jonah (mentioned in Ihimaera's book, The Whale Rider) who emerged a changed man from the whale's belly is one example. The Greek Arion who rode on a dolphin; King Lear and Cordelia; the story of the Arthurian knight, Sir Percival, and the Fisher King are others.


Whale Rider and the story of the Fisher King are both about healing and growth through the power of relatedness, typically associated with "feminine" qualities of compassion and empathy.

“What ails thee Fisher King?."  Is one of the crucial questions attributed to Sir Percival, and is in a way the question implicit in the film Whale Rider.

The Fisher King is wounded in the thigh, a symbolic place for fertility and masculine potency.  His realm has become a wasteland, and he is unable to connect with the meaning of the fish, the life saving contents in the waters of the unconscious.


Pai’s koro, is grieving the loss of tribal cohesion and the lack of a leader he can accept. He is also unable to connect with the invigorating wisdom in the collective unconscious that lies beneath the surface – the mythic dimension that reviewers refer to.


The cure for the Fisher King was in the asking of the question, a question that came from the compassion and relatedness of the feminine principle , which surfaced in the knight Percival on his third attempt.


The tribe in the film has lost its way, and the people are in a psychological and cultural wasteland, a parallel with the state of the kingdom in the Arthurian legend.


But the strength of the myth survives and comes to their aid in the girl Pai, who brings the new meaning and who incorporates the strong “masculine” traditional values of her grand father with the patience and intuitive, “feminine” values exemplified by her grandmother.


The feminine, Pai, relates both to her human, tradition bound koro, and to the wisdom of the ancient ones, alive and beating in the sea of the unconscious, just waiting to be made more conscious in the human flesh of the young leader.


It is not Pai who breaks the cord back to the ancient ones, it is koro's fixed, patriarchal attitude, and this is emphasised in the scene where he breaks the cord on the outboard motor, which Pai succeeds in fixing.


Pai also succeeds in returning the stranded pod of whales to the sea by relating to the bull whale, and the end of the film sees the human pod, lined up and rowing in the same direction like so many peas, or seeds of potential, in the resurrected waka (canoe).


People power of the Maori tribe has replaced the mechanical motor of western technology with promises of a fuller life, as the waka rows towards the horizon of the future.


The old man and young woman, who also represents koro’s developing capacity to relate, sit side by side in the waka. They are images of the union of tradition and change (senex and puella archetypes), of an older patriarchal power structure making room for the feminine, which represents an inclusive, people focused approach, where everyone has a valued role to play.


Like the yin/yang symbol, both koro and Pai contain seeds of the other within themselves.  The final image is one of balance, harmony and vigour.


Whale Rider presents themes of change and redemption in simple, human terms and many have responded, perhaps without knowing why.


The film may touch their need to live a less stressful life, which follows body rhythms rather than those of new technologies. It may touch the need of people to live in better functioning communities and in cities that are more human friendly, or simply touch the need to be accepted more fully for who they are and to live more authentic lives. 


Audiences may see a range of issues in the film - struggles for identity, for separateness and belonging; inter-generational and gender conflict; the struggles and triumphs of a culture to re-establish itself after the effects of colonial invasion and domination.


The performances of the cast, particularly, that of Keisha Castle-Hughes, have succeeded in conveying themes of mythic intensity that continue to energize the human race.


The story has been told simply, and while the film rendition over simplifies the book, it is also made more accessible to a wider audience.


The question is what effect, if any, such a film has on the consciousness of the individuals and social groups who see it. It has certainly had an effect on the people who made it.


As the rangitira (chief) of Ngati Konohi says on the DVD version of the film, “The dream world will end, but the moko (Maori tattoo) enshrined on the heart will remain forever”.

In the Cook Islands, says Judy Voullaire, paikea are the tiny crabs that survive hurricanes by clinging to sea wrack, and Paikea is the name of the Polynesian crab god, and other things that emerge from the sea. When Kahutia Te Rangi was washed up on Mangaia, he decided that from then on, he would call himself Paikea. He escaped from Mangaia on a waka named after a whale, the Areitereu.

Whaleriders - Judy Voullaire


Copyright 2004 Helen Frances.