A tale of childhood devaluation with underpinnings in Maori legend, "Whale Rider" is the sort of culturally correct medicine that parents funnel down the gullets of offspring who would rather be finding Nemo for the 14th time. All of the usual attributes are on display: sad-eyed heroine, tribal mythology, dignified silences, absence of boogie-boarding interludes. "Rabbit-Proof Fence" was practically a blueprint for keeping such projects edifying and entertaining. But if Whale Rider doesn't equal that film's glories, neither does it descend to the maudlin depths that make even some of the loftiest family flicks exercises in manipulation.
And there's mucho potential for crocodile tears in the story of pint-sized heroine Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes). A direct descendent of tribal leader Paikea -- who led the Maori to New Zealand on the back of a whale -- Pai finds her birthright denied by simple reason of her gender. A male sibling died at birth, taking their mother with him; father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has taken his grieving butt to Europe, leaving Pai in the care of crotchety grandfather Koro (Pawiri Paratene), an old-school chauvinist who has little use for little girls -- much less ones who "interrupt" sacred bloodlines. Koro makes the girl a lesser priority as he focuses on his heart's true mission: to instruct the boys of their coastal village in the ways of the elders, in the hopes that a genuine successor to Paikea will make himself known. All the while, the girl who really carries that legacy waits impatiently for her worth to be acknowledged.
A plot thread involving an eagerly awaited dance recital hints at a touchy-feely train wreck, but the movie never gets there, pulling assiduously back from mawkish convenience. The going is thus slow in spots, affording ample elbow room to Castle-Hughes' winning performance -- which manages to convey both pride and utter despondency at the same time -- and the natural wonders of the location. (See: all the New Zealand backdrops that weren't snapped up by "The Lord of the Rings!")
Still, the movie is more satisfying as myth than narrative. Several plot threads go untied: We never learn if Porourangi is a well-meaning papa brought low by tragedy, or a selfish shirker who puts his own mental health ahead of his family's. For a time, Pai gets a male rival, an eager student of tradition who looks to be Koro's favorite prospect in the search for a new messiah. But his story, too, is left unresolved as the film nudges its central character toward destiny. "Whale Rider" is so focused on the idea of Pai as The One (to borrow a phrase from another current picture) that it fails to pay proper regard to the almost-as-interesting Twos and Threes around her.