The Whale Rider (2002)
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Propelled by the love of three grandparents, Pai, the whale rider, heads out into the ocean.
Her grandmother encouraged Pai with love. Her grandfather encouraged her, too, but more harshly. Her third grandparent was an ancient whale rider, whom we slowly come to understand and appreciate.
The faith of the Maori people descends from the spirit of the sacred whales. Their tribe was founded when a whale rider rode to New Zealand, long long ago.
When those whales return, and are dying on the beach, Pai cries, and throws her small arms around a giant one.
She places her forehead and nose against the whale’s body, her tribe’s reverent greeting. She then climbs aboard, rubbing the whale gently near its nostrils. In a spine-tingling moment, the whale, seemingly near death, summons the strength to lift his tale and propel them both to sea.
“I am willing to die,” she thought as the whale descended to the deep, Pai aboard.
Somehow, the spirit of the whales brought her safely back to shore to fulfill her calling.
At the end, Pai takes her seat of honor in the Maori traditional hand-carved brightly painted canoe, and joyously sings the Maori chants, her grandpa at her side.
“Whale Rider” is a magnificent, spiritual tale of a girl taking flight, powered by the love of three grandparents.
Christmas, in a year when gatherings will be small or postponed, seems like the perfect time to celebrate grandparents.
Some live alone. Some with their families. Some are in retirement homes, with restricted visitation.
My own family tree -- drawn from love, not blood -- includes only those who loved me unconditionally. At the top smiles Grandma Harris.
To others she was a shy lady who went to church, taught Sunday school and blushed easily.
To me, she was the one who took me to Seattle Rainier baseball games, to Hitchcock movies -- and who taught me to play Canasta, her favorite game. Our times together were loving and joyous – and our hugs when I would leave were heartfelt. I lived a long drive and two ferry-rides away, so visits were precious.
“Whale Rider” understands the role grandparents play in a child’s life, but doesn’t oversimplify that bond.
On the surface, Pai’s grandpa is unloving and even mean at times. He was hoping for a male heir to the Maori family, but that boy – Pai’s twin – died in childbirth, as did her mother. Grandpa is grieving on many levels.
But he still takes bike rides with Pai sitting on the handlebars, leaning into grandpa.
When Pai’s asked to give a speech at school, she celebrates him, even though he did not come to the ceremony.
“I want to express my deep love and respect for my grandpa,” she says, crying on stage.
Pai understands and sympathizes with grandpa’s disappointment. She knows she “broke the line” by not being a boy. That “line” extends back to the legendary whale rider whose spirit resides in the Maori people.
And so Pai calls to the whales for support, offering a prayer.
“I called to them and they came,” she cries, looking at them barely breathing on her beach. Now she must save them.
Pai’s grandmother’s love is simple, warm, uncomplicated. She tries to soften her husband’s grief, which is often expressed cruelly to Pai.
But Pai keeps loving her grandpa, knowing his anger stems from his grief.
Pai’s ability to see through her grandpa’s anger is deeply touching.
Grandpa trains the boys in the ancient ways, searching for the new leader to replace the boy who died at birth. He won’t let Pai train – or dream.
Symbolically, the saga turns when grandpa throws a whale tooth into the water, telling the boys to retrieve it and claim their destiny. None find that tooth.
But one day Pai does swim to the tooth and brings it home – and a young girl shall lead them.
Young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, 12 at the time, was deservedly nominated for Best Actress for her beautiful performance.
“Whale Rider,” a New Zealand/German co-production, was shot in New Zealand, on the location where the book was set. “Whale Rider” was written by Witi Ihimaera, a native Maori writer.
Let’s ride along with young Pai, as she takes us home.
“I come from a long line of chiefs, all the way back to the Whale Rider. I am not a prophet. But I know the Maori will keep going forward. All together. With all our strength.”