Whale Rider begins with a sense of expectation. A prophecy is going to be fulfilled. A hero will rise. But this epic about New Zealand's Maori traditions features something different than a muscle-bound, sword-wielding warrior. Director Niki Caro's contemporary myth chronicles the heroics of a 12-year-old girl with a gift for leadership.

What sets Whale Rider apart from other Young Hero epics is how it portrays its young female protagonist. Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is just a kid, but she is intelligent, deeply emotional, and impressively brave. By the end of the film, she has humbled the willful grownups around her and won the audience's hearts.

Her story plays out against the backdrop of a New Zealand costal community. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the leader of the Ngati Konohi tribe, has given up on passing leadership to his sons. One is fat and lazy, the other abandoned the tribe to be an artist in Germany. So Koro wants a young man who will embrace the tribe's traditions.

Since the tribe only looks to men for leadership, Koro grows angry when Pai herself starts showing all the signs of the traditional "crown prince." He refuses to consider her as an alternative. It is up to his wife, Nanny Flowers (Vicki Haughton), a wiser, gentler sort of leader, to cultivate Pai's virtues behind Koro's back until the time is right for her to claim her place in the tribal history.

Some of the credit goes to Caro for directing such an enchanting adaptation of New Zealand writer Witi Ihimaera's novel. Lisa Gerrard should also be commended for providing music that suits the story's mystical qualities.

But a good deal of credit also goes to Keisha Castle-Hughes, the astonishing young actress who brings to life Pai's sufferings and triumphs. She transforms this production into a heart-wrenching drama. Her monologue near the end of the film is delivered with fierce energy; this simple speech becomes more breathtaking than all of the special-effects sequences in Hulk put together. Like Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence and John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Innish, the film treats its spirited heroine like a grownup, giving her an emotional complexity and a quiet intuitive nature that makes her seem more mature than anyone around her.

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) asks, "So, are there any family-friendly movies out right now that are actually friendly for the whole family? Indeed there are, though you'll have to find an art theater to see it. Fortunately, the trip is worth the effort. Whale Rider is a marvelous adventure tale."

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Movieguide's critic objects because the film portrays "an acceptance of pagan beliefs, including ancestor worship, in its story, which also takes a syncretistic approach that provides a multicultural, feminist, politically-correct spin." But he admits, "The positive, profamily themes in the movie may also furnish some insights for Christians."

Should we fault a film about a foreign culture because the film illustrates that culture's beliefs? Perhaps, if the film becomes propaganda for those beliefs, driven by an evangelistic agenda. But Whale Rider is more concerned with the story of a neglected child finding confidence and doing her best with what she has been given. This is hardly worth disregarding as merely feminist or politically correct. While Whale Rider does portray a people seemingly unconcerned with Christian faith, viewers can see in Pai strong metaphors for the way God can bow down the proud and give grace to the humble, and the way he can raise up a little David (or Pai) to lead a struggling people in the most unlikely places.

Mainstream critics certainly seem inspired by the film. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says the movie "makes itself fresh, observant, tough and genuinely moving. There is a vast difference between movies for 12-year-old girls, and movies about 12-year-old girls, and Whale Rider proves it. It's not just an uplifting ending, but a transcendent one, inspired and inspiring." And Kenneth Turan (L.A. Times) agrees, calling it "a work of great warmth with an overwhelming finale … a substantial film of unexpected emotional force. And when at a certain point it seems to slip the bonds of this world and take a leap of faith into an almost mythological dimension, it breathlessly takes us along for that memorable ride."

Hulk is a film with a split personality

Hulk, Ang Lee's contribution to the ever increasing library of movies based on comic books, is getting mixed reviews from critics. Some find it too long, too brooding, too serious for the genre. Others appreciate its more contemplative leanings, but find the bizarre action-packed finale dissatisfying.

Nevertheless, there are some remarkable things about this challenging, ambitious comic-book/art film.

Dick Staub (Culture Watch) muses, "When you strip away all the special effects, at a very significant level this is a story about fathers and children. Banner's father clearly wants to move beyond the boundaries established by God and makes a vague reference to the role of human religion in making the human soul inferior. His 'mad scientist' mentality is shaped by man's age-old desire to 'be God.' In Hulk you are seeing the Garden of Eden and Tower of Babel rolled into one storyline. The story also explores the law of unintended consequences in scientific experimentation."

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Jay Levitz (Christian Spotlight) says, "Don't believe the Hulk is demonic, despite his green, frightening appearance. He's the true nature of all human flesh made manifest—self-serving, cunning, and evil. This is one film where Hollywood gets sin right. There is no 'power within' Bruce Banner to help him conquer the monster who keeps rearing its ugly head each time he gets angry. Only love seems to appease him. The Hulk is a frightening, relevant reflection of a society willing to defy God in pursuit of more power, of fathers deserting and destroying their own offspring, and of children seeking ways to move beyond their parents' self-serving power struggles in order to find real life and hope."

Both Mike Furches and David Bruce review Hulk at Hollywood Jesus, exploring the spiritual questions at the heart of the film. Bruce quotes Romans 7:18-20 in his review: "The apostle Paul once wrote: 'I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn, I can't make myself do right. I want to, but I can't. When I want to do good, I don't. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway.' This sin that Paul talks about is like the Hulk within Bruce Banner. This sinful nature is in all of us. It controls us. What can be done about it?"

While I thought the film's finale was a major letdown, I too appreciated its spiritual metaphors, forays into mythology, and questions of a moral nature. My full review is at Looking Closer.

But Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "Lee seems to be reaching for a profundity that neither the film nor its actors can support. [He] eventually reaches too far, and the film ends as a muddled excess of sound and fury … signifying nothing."

Anne Navarro (Catholic News Service) says, "Lee's steady hand in the first half of the film uncharacteristically shakes in the latter part as the script becomes overwhelmed in its attempt to tie together too many loose plot strands."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) says, "It's too talky and about 30 minutes too long. Lee's overuse of comic book-style visuals … becomes a distraction. So instead of drawing us into their world, Lee constantly reminds us that we're on the outside watching a comic book, which distances us emotionally from what's going on."

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Ted Baehr (Movieguide) writes, "Hulk has a lot to commend … but its psychological themes about parents and children are too dark and heavy for an action movie intended for children and teenagers."

Michael Medved (Crosswalk) concludes, "[The Hulk is] a lumbering lummox of a movie that constitutes the most disappointing major release of the summer season so far."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I went to this movie expecting it to be an action-packed, thrill-a-minute adventure, but what I didn't expect was how intense, dark, and violent it turned out to be. Granted, I realize this story is about a dark character, but somehow I remembered the TV show being a little lighter and funnier."

Mainstream critics debate Hulk's strengths and weaknesses here.

Just becauseAlex and Emma is about a writer doesn't mean it's well written

Rob Reiner, director of such favorites as The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, and When Harry Met Sally, is back with a new romantic comedy—Alex and Emma. The plot is inspired by the story of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who attempted to take care of gambling debts by anxiously penning a short story called The Gambler. Legend has it that during this endeavor he fell in love with his stenographer.

This version of the story casts Luke Wilson (Old School, The Royal Tenenbaums) as a struggling romance novelist who asks Kate Hudson (Almost Famous, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) to take dictation. Does it compare to Dostoevsky? Critics suggest the finished product is more like a cheap romance novel.

"This is a light and often funny romantic comedy played nicely by the two leads," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "The romantic sparks between the two never quite ignite, but both characters are likable enough for us to be rooting for them to get together. The screenplay … includes plenty of amusing setups, funny lines, and a sweetly emotional payoff."

But David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) complains, "Reiner here breaks one of the cardinal rules of the genre by not placing enough roadblocks—or even potholes—on Alex and Emma's byway to bliss. Their relationship is without obstacles and is never really in jeopardy—with the exception of a plot twist thrown in late in the game—divesting the narrative of any doubt as to whether they will stroll off into the end-credit sunset together."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) writes, "Alex & Emma does not aspire to high concept art or complex literature, but rather it is content to remain a sweet and simple love story. Luke Wilson and Kate Hudson have moderate chemistry and the film's pacing, while teetering perilously near boredom at times, manages to elicit a comfortable sense of warmth." He argues that while the film's central story is interesting, the hasty sex between the two leads is unfortunate, and the fiction penned by Luke Wilson's character "comes pretty close to spoiling the whole thing. His characters are dull, predictable and shallow."

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Ted Baehr (Movieguide) notes with pleasure that Luke Wilson at one point cries out, "Help me Lord!" But he concludes that the film "has a Romantic, 'fate and destiny' feel to it. Regrettably, the characters sleep together in the movie, and a silhouetted, campy sex scene makes the movie unacceptable for older children."

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) says, "I enjoyed the clever and witty touches to this story … but somehow it doesn't end up being a When Harry Met Sally (like I expected). This is simply a sweet and entertaining romantic comedy for adults."

Critics eager to move From Justin to Kelly to something else entirely

Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, the recent winner and runner-up on American Idol, are already movie stars. Their debut film is called From Justin to Kelly, a romantic musical/comedy in the style of Beach Blanket Bingo. Based on this heavily hyped piece of empty Idol-atry, critics do not think the actors have promising big-screen futures.

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "The voices of Justin and Kelly are the one strength of the movie but the songs they sing are simultaneously bland and annoying. Had the producers operated from artistic motives rather than commercial ones, the film might have had potential. As it is, rushing this atrocity through production while its stars are still somewhat famous is nothing but transparent exploitation."

Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) writes that the film "plays out like its script was penciled on the back of a damp cocktail napkin. The most disappointing aspect of this Clarkson and Guarini vehicle isn't its hackneyed plot or painful dialogue: It's the astonishing amount of flesh that the PG-rated movie flashes. Slinky sexuality, along with dubious messages about love, make this a feature not worth idolizing."

Timereviews Jesus movie, while Christian moviemakers ask Congress to fund "quality entertainment"

As part of this week's cover story on missionary ministries reaching out to Muslims, Time magazine offers a review of the widely used Jesus movie, released in 1979, which has been translated into more than 800 languages and has played to audiences in every country. "The film has an interestingly hybrid pedigree," writes David Van Biema. "Its producer was John Heyman, who helped arrange financing for Chinatown and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Heyman took the project to Bill Bright, founder of the Evangelical ministry Campus Crusade, who obtained a $3.5 million loan guarantee from Texas oil baron Nelson Bunker Hunt. (The film eventually cost $6 million.) Campus Crusade says it consulted with hundreds of scholars and Christian leaders before the movie was made and cast it with Yemenite Jews—except for Jesus, who is played by British actor Brian Deacon."

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Meanwhile, Fox News reports this week that Christian film directors are appealing to Congress for "quality entertainment" funding. "Act One Writing for Hollywood, which trains and mentors Christian screenwriters, has called on lawmakers to acknowledge morally heartening, real-life scenarios played out on the big screen, and to use their influence to shine light on the good in Tinseltown," writes Liza Porteus. "Members of Act One, which includes theologians as well the writers and producers of shows and movies such as Mission Impossible, Batman Forever, The Family Man, A Different World and The Addams Family, were hosted on Capitol Hill recently by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C."

Bonhoeffera big-screen hero?

A new documentary by filmmaker Martin Doblmeier focuses on the life, faith, and controversial WWII adventures of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship. The film is currently playing in Manhattan, and has prompted admiring reviews from such prominent critics as Anthony Lane (The New Yorker) and Elvis Mitchell (The New York Times). As the film plays to more audiences around the country, Film Forum will keep you posted on the responses of religious press critics.

More thoughts on Matrix, Bruce Almighty, Mel Gibson's Passion, and a rush to the defense of that pesky Potter kid

This week, Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman (Cinema in Focus) catch up with The Matrix Reloadedand Bruce Almighty.

Sister Rose Pacatte (The Tidings) reviews Bruce Almighty. She argues, "for all its potential minus points, the scale tips to the plus side because it is a positive—and entertaining—witness to the attributes of God, who is present to creation and who cares about humanity. Morgan Freeman as God is believable and an excellent casting choice that invites reverence and faith, even when 'God' laughs at our human foibles."

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Elsewhere, Charles Colson (Breakpoint) is talking about discernment at the movies. Commenting on The Matrix Reloaded, he says, "The film combines Eastern and Christian concepts in a way that does justice to neither worldview and only serves to confuse the audience." On Gosford Park, he says, "On the surface [it] is a costume drama about the relationships between the British upper class and its servants. Once you get beneath that surface, however, you see that the moral universe depicted in Gosford Park can best be described as nihilistic. The story unfolds in such a way that viewers can't help but accept the justification for the killer's actions and, even worse, the indifference to the victim's death."

At World magazine, Andrew Coffin recommends 50 films "that can be a vibrant and useful part of family life." After his introduction, he lists favorites for families with young children, families in "the middle ground," and families with older children. He says his list "attempts to reflect an emphasis on overall quality rather than the simple absence of offensive elements or presence of positive themes."

Mel Gibson's controversial coming attraction about the life of Christ, Passion, is generating more debate.

Speaking of cinema-related scandal: To note the arrival in bookstores of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly turns his attention again to those Christians who so actively protest Potter's popularity on the page and the big screen. "Many Christians will quote Bible verses condemning magic. Academics will call the book a childish confection and analyze it as media myth and pop psychology. Librarians will give thanks that children are reading—anything." But then he references John Granger's book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter. He quotes Granger: "What we are seeing is a religious phenomenon taking place in a profoundly secular, profane culture. J.K. Rowling is pouring living water into a desert. … She is mounting a head-on attack on a materialistic world that denies the existence of the supernatural and, so far, she is getting away with it."

Peter T. Chattaway (Canadian Christianity) offers a look at Granger's book, and others, in his latest pro-Potter post. He offers a thoughtful critique of three interpretations written by those find spiritual profundity in the stories, and finds a few flaws in their arguments. Nevertheless, he prefers these perspectives to the flimsy anti-Potter arguments. "It is tempting to argue that all three of these authors have been caught up in the hype and are seeing what they want to see in the Harry Potter books. All three of them praise Rowling's storytelling, and if there are any weaknesses in her stories—and I think there are, though I do like the books myself—you would hardly know it from reading these commentaries. We're still waiting for a more balanced critical appraisal of the Potter books. But positive Christian responses such as these do provide a welcome antidote to Potter's more hypercritical opponents."

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Jerry Bowyer (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) says, "It's a pity that so many conservative Christians have identified Harry Potter as their enemy, because he is probably the most effective proponent of the classical Christian view of the world to have appeared in decades. In the great battle between Christianity and its modern rivals, Harry Potter is on our side. And he's one of the few pop culture figures who is."

Jim Evans at Ethics Daily says, "If you want your book or movie to be a hit, pray that it will be condemned. … Telling people not to read a certain book or see a certain movie almost always has the opposite effect. There is nothing quite like a good book burning to boost sales. Why are the faithful today afraid to engage culture in creative and transforming dialogue? The impulse to ban, condemn, and silence the competition certainly comes from a position of power the church holds today, but seems to reflect an inherent insecurity. It's almost as if church leaders are afraid the gospel can't compete in the marketplace of ideas."

Christianity Today's Weblog, however, notes that few Christian leaders have actually condemned the books.

In two weeks: Tales from the Flickerings film festival at Cornerstone 2003, plus the latest reviews of new summer movies.