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Film review: Whale Rider

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"Whale Rider" is one of those tales with such universal appeal that you can practically see Hollywood executives rubbing their hands together as they prepare to remake it — and mess it up royally.

For the Hollywood version, the location would probably be shifted from New Zealand to the United States, changing the ethnicity of the characters from Maori to American Indian, perhaps, and changing the whales to horses. Not that we're trying to give them any ideas.

All of which makes you want to treasure this gentle, character- and cultural-driven drama all the more — especially since it provides further insights into the often neglected Maori culture.

Also, it should be said that this is probably one of the softest PG-13 ratings in recent memory (for extremely brief drug content). Families should be encouraged to seek out this low-key gem.

Another selling point is the lead performance by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes, who stars as Paikea, or Pai, a young New Zealand girl. Her mother died in childbirth, as did her twin brother, which scared her father (Cliff Curtis) so much that he ran off. That has left Pai in the care of her grandparents, including her gruff, tradition-minded grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), who was hoping for a grandson to help lead their struggling Maori community back to some sort of prominence.

In spite of his obvious disappointment, Koro has done his best to support and nurture Pai, who has some fancy notions of her own regarding her place in their town — and in the world. But she finds herself torn when her father returns and wants to take her to Europe with him. However, Pai's heart is with her grandparents and her people.

Everything works, but the film would be worth seeing just for the gorgeous scenery (kudos to cinematographer Leon Narbey and his crew for capturing New Zealand in all its natural beauty).

Adapted from Witi Ihimaera's novel (based on Maori legends), the script, by director Niki Caro, is neither strident nor overly sentimental, which is refreshing for a live-action drama.

Castle-Hughes has the daunting responsibility of carrying the film, but she's up to the task, bringing an endearing presence to the screen. Both Paratene and Curtis lend some fine supporting performances (Koro might have become unlikable had he not been played by ingratiating character actor Paratene).

"Whale Rider" is rated PG-13 for crude slang terms, brief violence (combat training) and brief drug content (marijuana possession). Running time: 105 minutes.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com