Whale Rider

Movie review by
Nell Minow, Common Sense Media
Whale Rider Movie Poster Image
Parents recommend
Excellent, gorgeous drama with uplifting messages.
  • PG-13
  • 2003
  • 105 minutes

Parents say

age 9+
Based on 16 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 24 reviews

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Deep emotional connection to ancestral worship and tribal ways conveyed. Stay true to your culture without slavishly obeying every rule. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite her youth, Pai demonstrates extraordinary strength of character as she learns everything that the next leader of her people must learn, trying to keep it secret from her disapproving grandfather. The grandfather hurtfully dismisses her but comes to accept her and the idea that a female can lead.


The story begins with the death of a mother and baby in childbirth. Agonized faces and moans are on display, but no gore. Beached whales die despite the efforts of the Maori to save them. No blood is shown. Boys are taught traditional fighting techniques. The leader is hit in a training fight and praises the boy who hits him. A character appears to have died by drowning.


Reference to female genitalia. During a tribal training session, the leader promises that boys' "d--ks" will fall off if they don't follow his directions.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adult characters drink socially. Some smoke but try to hide it. One vows to quit. An adolescent boy smokes. A bag of marijuana and drug paraphernalia are shown.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Whale Rider has some tense family confrontations. The death of a mother and baby in childbirth is very sad. A character is injured but ultimately recovers. There's brief strong language regarding female and male genitalia. Characters drink and smoke, and there's a brief drug reference (a bag of marijuana and drug paraphernalia are shown). The movie presents a minority culture with great dignity and respect, and the theme of equality is exceptionally well handled. Despite her youth, heroine Pai demonstrates extraordinary strength of character as she learns all that the next leader of her people must learn, trying to keep it secret from her disapproving grandfather. The grandfather hurtfully dismisses her but comes to accept her and the idea that a female can lead.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent of a 9 and 14-year-old Written bylioness57 April 9, 2008

An absolutely beautiful movie

I checked out the Common Sense Media notes before I took my 9 year old and 5 year old to the movie. I was prepared for the opening scene with a baby and mom dy... Continue reading
Adult Written byRdinws March 31, 2019

Great film!

Beautiful film. My 8 year old loved it and we can't figure out why there is the 11+ rating from the experts. The very beginning does have the death of th... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMochiWolf March 17, 2018


I thought it was kind of boring...maybe I'm missing something...I do like how Pai finally changes her tribe's minds, but other than that, I was bored.... Continue reading
Teen, 13 years old Written bywungastarwars January 20, 2018

Film Is Stunning but Lacks A Sturdy Plot And Has Dull Characters

Only males are allowed to ascend to chiefdom in a Maori tribe in New Zealand. This ancient custom is upset when the child selected to be the next chief dies at... Continue reading

What's the story?

WHALE RIDER is set in the Maori community of New Zealand. According to legend, the Maori came to Whangara when their great leader Paikea led them by riding on a whale. Ever since, the Maori have been led by the descendants of that leader. The movie begins with the birth of twins, the latest in that line. But the boy twin and his mother die. Over the objection of the current leader, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the girl twin is named Paikaea. Her heartbroken father leaves New Zealand, and Pai is left to be raised by her grandparents. Koro loves Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) deeply, but he is still bitter about not having a male heir. When she is 12, Koro assembles the local boys to begin to train them in the traditions of their culture and test them to see who has the courage, skill, wisdom, and leadership. It is clear to her grandmother (Vicki Houghton) and to Pai herself that she has all those qualities, but Koro, struggling fiercely to maintain the Maori pride and identity against the assaults of the modern world, cannot allow himself to consider such a change.

Is it any good?

Writer-director Niki Coro perfectly suits the style to the story. The modest buildings in the midst of the starkly beautiful setting convey the contrast between the timeless culture of the Maori and the ephemeral artifacts of the modern age. Pai's perceptiveness and quiet persistence are always evident, but when she finally speaks from her heart, standing on stage in a school production, wearing traditional garb, she is purely luminous. Whale Rider is not only genuinely lyrical, but, even harder to manage, it is lyrically genuine. A must-see for families of tweens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the traditions in Whale Rider and the traditions of their own cultures. Which ones do you think are important to pass down? Which do you think need to evolve?

  • What makes Pai such a strong role model?

  • Have you ever been told you weren't able to do something because of your sex or age? How did you handle the issue?

  • How do the characters in Whale Rider demonstrate courage and perseverance? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas and uplifting tales

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