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A whale of a tale that takes on too much

Fish-out-of-water tales are such common cinema fare that a good one shouldn’t seem uncomfortable in its own element.

“The Whale Rider” is a whale of a fish tale (and, yes, all you biology majors looking up my extension: I know whales are really mammals) – with a whopper of an identity crisis on center stage. It’s too simplistic for the art house, too unremittingly dour to be spiritually uplifting and too strange to help the world understand the Maori culture.

You know the story: The chosen one must lead a people out of perdition (or to somewhere – Disney World, maybe?) on the back of a whale; girl’s grandpa is mired in tradition, girl meets boy, girl hits boy with stick, grandpa insists on acting like a jackass, girl meets whale, grandpa meets whale S and in the end, everybody figures out Old Yeller was really Brad Pitt all along, setting the stage for “The Whale Rider II: Once More Onto the Beach.”



Or something like that.

I’m just assuming I grasped the plot, because what “The Whale Rider” packs in simplicity it lacks in sound editing. The last two movies I saw that I thought I needed English subtitles were English-language movies – “The Whale Rider” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” It’s not that the rich accents that pervade the cast and the Maori words sprinkled through the movie were hard to understand. Rather the muddy soundtrack gives little clue when a character is about to switch from one language to the other mid-sentence.



It seems like a nitpick, but it’s symptomatic of the larger problem of “The Whale Rider.” It’s about the Maori culture, but then it’s really a movie of global vision. It wants to be simple, and it wants to be global. It wants to be a family movie and a stinging indictment of culture. “The Whale Rider” simply sucks more into its giant maw than it can possibly digest in 101 minutes.

“The Whale Rider” is a beautiful movie of cetacean-sized scope. But in striving to be everything, it beaches itself; “The Whale Rider” is a big, awe-inspiring mess that ends up hopelessly stuck in the sand.

grandpa meets whale S and in the end, everybody figures out Old Yeller was really Brad Pitt all along, setting the stage for “The Whale Rider II: Once More Onto the Beach.”

Or something like that.

I’m just assuming I grasped the plot, because what “The Whale Rider” packs in simplicity it lacks in sound editing. The last two movies I saw that I thought needed English subtitles were English-language movies – “The Whale Rider” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” It’s not that the rich accents that pervade the cast and the Maori words sprinkled through the movie were hard to understand. Rather the muddy soundtrack gives little clue when a character is about to switch from one language to the other mid-sentence.

It seems like a nitpick, but it’s symptomatic of the larger problem of “The Whale Rider.” It’s about the Maori culture, but then it’s really a movie of global vision. It wants to be simple, and it wants to be global. It wants to be a family movie and a stinging indictment of culture. “The Whale Rider” simply sucks more into its giant maw than it can possibly digest in 101 minutes.

“The Whale Rider” is a beautiful movie of cetacean-sized scope. But in striving to be everything, it beaches itself; “The Whale Rider” is a big, awe-inspiring mess that ends up hopelessly stuck in the sand.


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