Whale Rider Blu-ray Review

A Young Keisha Castle-Hughes Portrays a Maori Girl In Her Powerful Debut

Whale Rider is one of the more celebrated films in New Zealand’s cinematic history. It’s hard to believe fifteen years passed since the moving, heartfelt story of a young Maori girl became a festival sensation. The indie darling introduced the world to actress Keisha Castle-Hughes in a powerful performance for one so young, now a grown woman on Game of Thrones. Director Niki Caro’s film is an engaging look at the native Maori people of New Zealand as they struggle with the stresses of modern society placed on their proud culture.

Whale Rider is a wonderful coming-of-age tale constructed around twelve-year-old Pai (Castle-Hughes) that touches on many themes. The small Maori village she was born in faces a severe problem. Tribal tradition always passed leadership of their people to the first-born son. Pai’s twin brother dies in child-birth, leaving the chieftain role vacant. Distraught, Pai’s father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) abandons Pai and the village in the wake of his son’s death. Pai ends up being raised by her stern grandfather Koro and that relationship forms the crux of Whale Rider. Koro is extremely concerned about preserving Maori traditions and culture. He blames young Pai for her twin brother’s death.

Koro and Pai are fully fleshed-out characters with real emotional depth

The complex, bittersweet relationship between Koro, Pai and Porourangi is an engaging metaphor for the plight of the traditional Maori people as they attempt to hold onto customs dating back hundreds of years. The pressures of contemporary society creep into the family as the disproving Koro tries to keep the Maori traditions alive. Most of this pressure unjustly falls on young Pai at a delicate time in her life, as she finds her place in the world. When her father Porourangi comes back from Europe, Pai will have to decide between the only place she has ever lived and a father she’s barely met.

Whale Rider has been thoughtfully crafted and celebrates the interesting Maori culture without an overly sentimental approach. Koro and Pai are fully fleshed-out characters with real emotional depth. Their conflict is a beautifully sincere portrait of a young girl coming to terms with her family and culture but never loses sight of their humanity. Pai’s remarkable grace and courage shines through as she overcomes cultural obstacles and her stubborn grandfather to make new Maori traditions. Keisha Castle-Hughes portrays Pai in a mesmerizing performance well beyond her young age.

Whale Rider is obviously rooted in an exotic culture far removed from our everyday American expectations. Its moving tale of a young Maori girl coming of age is universal and will tug at your heart.

Video

Shout Factory does a good job bringing Whale Rider to Blu-ray in a solid film transfer with capable definition and largely crisp visuals. The 2002 New Zealand production wasn’t intended to look stunning, though some of the native background scenery near the ocean has its moments. The main feature runs over 101 minutes, encoded in AVC on a BD-50. The AVC compression averages well over 30 Mbps. Aside from a few stray blips of compression noise in the heaviest visible grain, it’s a flawless presentation.

The film elements are in clean, presentable condition without any marks or blemishes. The contrast is somewhat flat and dull. A new color correction with punchier tones would have given the video more pop and clarity. The HD transfer is fairly detailed in close-ups. A hint of ringing is evident, producing thin halos in the occasional scene.

Whale Rider receives a film-like presentation in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio. While there is nothing extraordinary about the transfer, fans should be immensely pleased with its sharpness and faithful treatment.

Audio

Whale Rider is mostly a dialogue-driven film and its surround audio offers light immersion. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA experience largely comes from the front soundstage, opening up a bit in the rear channels for its moody score by Australian composer Lisa Gerrard.

One or two scenes offer heavier sonic immersion with fully discrete cues. Dialogue is cleanly reproduced, if mildly lost on a few occasions to mumbling actors. Whale Rider’s audio offers okay separation and smooth bass in clean sound quality.

Optional English SDH subtitles play in a white font, remaining inside the scope presentation at all times. A secondary soundtrack is included in 2.0 DTS-HD MA stereo that largely duplicates the surround option.

Extras

Whale Rider is #27 in Shout Factory’s Select line. It comes with a slipcover and a digital copy you download yourself. Be warned however that Shout Factory’s digital copies are neither UltraViolet or iTunes, so their utility has been called into question by digital collectors. The digital copy offer expires August 22, 2018.

Shout Factory’s BD includes every special feature found on Sony’s original DVD aside from one missing featurette – an 11-minute look at the movie’s score called “Whale Rider: the Soundtrack.”

The behind-the-scenes documentary is excellent and this is generally a fine set of special features, all produced back in 2003 when the DVD market was thriving and studios still cared about extras.

Audio commentary – Writer/director Niki Caro’s solo commentary is thoughtful and revealing. She recalls a significant amount of information about the production while also explaining the deeper emotional themes that play out. This is one commentary that doesn’t run out of steam and it’s clear this was a passion project for her.

Behind the Scenes of Whale Rider (27:02 in SD) – A thorough documentary with lengthy interview clips from all the key participants, including a very young Keisha Castle-Hughes. They even tracked down the original novelist and include extensive footage from the set.

Te-Waka: Building The Canoe (11:15 in SD) – The featurette covers the construction and planning of the canoe that shows up near the end.

Deleted Scenes (08:33 in SD) – Eight deleted scenes are included with optional commentary by director Niki Caro and editor David Coulson. Most were cut for pacing issues.

Keisha Castle-Hughes Screen Test (06:11 in SD) – The young actress auditions for the role.

Theatrical Trailer (02:57 in SD)

TV Spots (02:37 in SD) – Several TV spots strung together.

Poster Art and Photo Gallery (01:57 in HD)

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected DoBlu’s editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

The unaltered images below represent the Blu-ray. For a dozen exclusive Whale Rider screen shots, early access to all screens (plus the 7,000+ already in our library), exclusive UHD reviews, and more, support us on Patreon.