Whale Rider Movie Poster Image

Whale Rider

Excellent, gorgeous drama with uplifting messages.
Parents recommendPopular with kids
  • Rated: PG-13
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2003
  • Running Time: 105 minutes

What parents need to know

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

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.

Not applicable

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.

Not applicable
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.

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.

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.

Families can talk 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

Theatrical release date:June 6, 2003
DVD/Streaming release date:October 28, 2003
Cast:Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton
Director:Niki Caro
Studio:Newmarket Film Group
Character strengths:Courage, Perseverance
Run time:105 minutes
MPAA rating:PG-13
MPAA explanation:brief language and a momentary drug reference

This review of Whale Rider was written by

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Teen, 16 years old Written bykitsaru April 9, 2008

This was an excellent movie. It is definitely an enjoyable show!

This was one of the best movies I have seen for a long time. It wasn't a "grown-up" movie, and it wasn't a kiddie show. I think that it was a great movie, definately a break from the usual tired old shows, there were no "bad guys". The grandfather wasn't evil in not letting her be chief, he was just very traditional. This is a very nice change from the usual one-sided baddies in many movies. Over all, I found this movie to be a wonderful movie.
Educator and 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 dying in childbirth (which happens in the opening scene) and kept checking my 5 year-old's face - it all happened so fast with alot of montage photography that it went over his head. From that point on, Whale Rider is one of the most beautiful and moving films that I have seen all year. It makes you laugh and cry. The characters are wonderful, the cinematography extraordinary. We had long discussions with my daughter afterward about the struggle to preserve native cultures and the abiilty of girls to be leaders, and the importance of pursuing your dreams even in the face of opposition - all were themes of the movie. I really can't recommend this highly enough.
Teen, 14 years old Written bystar April 9, 2008

A movie that is very uniuq with a great story.

Whale Rider is not only a great picture it has a great message two. Should be rated PG-13 but not a very intense PG-13.