While Disney’s recent series of live-action remakes might justifiably be seen as cynical cash grabs, at least the company has been sincere about choosing appropriate directors to helm their $200 million investments. With so much riding on a project, previous experience counts for a lot. Bill Condon’s live-action musical Dreamgirls gave him the experience he needed to direct the equally bombastic musical Beauty and the Beast; the anthropomorphic CGI animals of The Jungle Book led Jon Favreau to The Lion King; and Dumbo is a natural outgrowth of Tim Burton’s career-long fascination with dark, hallucinatory period dramas. Up to now, though, these directorial choices have mostly hinged on familiarity with a project’s particular technical or aesthetic needs, rather than an affinity for story or theme.
But for Mulan, the tale of a young heroine who defies gender restrictions to save her community, Disney chose New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose 2002 film Whale Rider covered much of the same thematic ground. Not only is Whale Rider a story about a Polynesian princess, made a full 14 years before Disney’s Moana, the film shares a number of traits with the princess genre Disney codified in Western animation. Whale Rider doesn’t feature any Broadway-style songs or cute animal sidekicks, but it’s the best princess movie Disney never made. For people who want another dose of girl power after Mulan (and a better one), Whale Rider’s moving, inspirational story should be next on the list.
Whale Rider introduces its protagonist, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), experiencing a trauma shared by countless other Disney heroines: her mother’s death. In defiance of her grandfather and village chief Koro (Rawiri Paratene), Pai’s father (Cliff Curtis) names her after the legendary Maōri ancestor Paika, who rode a whale across the sea to lead his people to prosperity in a new land. Overcome with grief and burdened with the expectation that he become chief, Pai’s father abandons the village, leaving the child to be raised by her grandparents. Even though Pai is the chief’s granddaughter, and shares a direct bloodline with Paikea, she’s barred from ever becoming chief herself, because of her gender.
In Mulan, the protagonist’s community is threatened by the invading Rouran Khanate, who seek to destroy their way of life. In Whale Rider, Pai’s community is menaced by a different kind of invader: the long, insidious arm of white colonialism. While the men of Mulan are conscripted from their homes to join in the war, the men of Pai’s community are lost to prison, substance abuse, and better work opportunities outside the village. Pai’s father ultimately settles in Germany and works as an artist, exhibiting Maōri sculpture in galleries where it can be appropriated by white dilettantes. Meanwhile, his waka
Pai’s grandfather grieves for his dwindling community, and, like Mulan’s family, he prays to his ancestors for guidance. Because of the tragedy associated with her birth, Koro superstitiously believes Pai is responsible for the village’s plight. His unshakable adherence to the old ways compels him toward a last-ditch attempt to save the village the only way he knows how: through the rigid application of tradition. In the hope of finding a new chief, he gathers the village boys to instruct them in tribal customs. Barred from these male-only rituals, Pai, showing the plucky determination of all great Disney princesses, defies her grandfather and begins learning the men’s rites in secret.
Disney princesses are always aided in their quests by a ragtag cohort of friends. Just as Snow White has her seven dwarfs and Mulan her fellow soldiers, Pai is supported in her journey by her good-natured burnout uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa) and cocky schoolmate Hemi (Mana Taumaunu), but by helping her, they bring on Koro’s wrath. As a grandfather, Koro loves Pai, but as chief, he worries that her violation of tradition could bring catastrophe on the village. Caro uses rope as a simple visual metaphor throughout the film to illustrate the way Koro’s inflexibility strains both his relationship with Pai and the morale of the village, threatening to snap the woven threads of community that bind them together.
The moral of both Mulan and Whale Rider is that rigidly adhering to tradition can be disastrous. Mulan and Pai share similar problems; they have abilities and potential that they aren’t allowed to express, yet their determination to do so saves their respective communities. Caro and her team have spoken about the difficulties in remaking Mulan both for American audiences, who expect a story that emphasizes individual achievement, and Chinese audiences, who in some cases felt the animated version of the story placed too much emphasis on the character’s individuality, rather than the Confucian ideal of self-sacrifice for the good of society.
Ironically, though, Mulan’s journey in the animated film is mild by American standards for heroism. Her arc centers on the quiet, personal victory of making her family proud before continuing her old life, while China itself carries on as it has for centuries. Whale Rider, on the other hand, demonstrates a hybrid approach between fulfilling individual needs and community needs. Pai’s arc not only sees her individuality acknowledged, it lets her actions permanently change her environment for the better. While in Mulan, the goal is to preserve the status quo, in Whale Rider, change is necessary for the community’s survival. This balance is a needle Caro must thread in Mulan in order to satisfy two unique audiences with opposing perspectives.
Though Whale Rider has a more grounded tone than its animated counterparts, Pai’s determination to be true to herself in defiance of tradition is a trait shared by all the great modern film princesses, Mulan included. Pai’s journey incorporates many of the same tropes as the Disney films, and even improves some of them by highlighting how a person’s actions can not just enrich their own lives, but boost the community as well. Whale Rider’s moving, family-friendly story of female empowerment is a worthy alternative take on a Disney-dominated genre.
Whale Rider is streaming free on Tubi with ad support, and can be rented on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital services.