The scenery is stunning in “The Legend of Johnny Lingo,” the tale of a despised Polynesian orphan taken in by the titular fellow, a successful trader, who becomes his surrogate father and passes on his identity to him (sort of like The Phantom did to perpetuate his persona). This eventually enables the young man to return to his home island to seek the hand of the one girl who had befriended him there, but who has been so embittered by years of mistreatment and disappointment that she finds it difficult to accept the possibility of good fortune and romance. The picture is based on a story by Patricia McGerr called “Johnny Lingo’s Eight Cow Wife,” published in 1962. It’s become especially popular in Mormon culture–one source says that, apart from the Scriptures, it might be the best-known, best-loved story in LDS circles–but it doesn’t appear at first blush overtly denominational. There may be some underlying teaching about transformation and royalty that will have special meaning to church members–not being familiar with the theology I can’t say. But the story is presented by screenwriter Riwia Brown (“Once Were Warriors”) as a universal fable of love and the power that respect has on the person toward whom it’s directed, and although some might quibble with the emphasis on wealth as the means of final redemption, it will hardly seem offensive to most viewers.
It might, however, strike them as rather stilted and didactic, like a Disney live-action feature from the fifties or sixties. Steven Ramirez, an assistant editor (on pictures like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Being There” and “Dolores Claiborne”) turned director, does a workmanlike but unimaginative job of staging the piece, but he’s hampered by the fact that his cast–mostly of New Zealand natives with stage and screen experience–doesn’t possess the finesse and ease that would have mitigated the clunky nature of some of the writing. Most memorable, perhaps, are the youngsters, Tausani Simei-Barton anb Fokikovi Soakimi, who play the boy and girl who bond prior to the former’s departure from their island to seek a better life. Their older counterparts, Joe Falou and Kayte Ferguson, are less impressive. The designers have an especially difficult time obscuring Ferguson’s beauty when the script requires her to be portrayed as the ugliest young woman around. George Henare brings an aristocratic dignity to the generous trader, though he at times comes across as affected.
Ultimately “The Legend of Johnny Lingo” is a good-natured but somewhat slack family film that’s unlikely to do much business in theaters but is worth considering for rental when it shows up on video and DVD. In a way that’s a pity, because it’s on the big screen that its greatest strength–the luscious scenery–will make the best impression. But that’s life.