The Legend of Johnny Lingo

The Legend of Johnny Lingo is what passes for family entertainment these days, which is pretty unfortunate. Like most other 'family' films, it has a nice moral and is thoroughly innocuous and boring. Kids can watch it only because there is nothing objectionable in the film. The one difference is that it takes place across the world, in the islands of the South Sea. One of the stars, Rawiri Paratene (Whale Rider, Accidents) plays a chief, essentially the same character he played in Whale Rider, a family film light years ahead of this one in every sense. The Legend of Johnny Lingo is based on Patricia McGerr's short story Johnny Lingo's Eight Cow Wife, and was made once into a film in 1969. Oddly enough, the film, with its emphasis on good family themes, was extremely popular with the Mormon Church, and the same group of people that made the LDS The Other Side of Heaven made this film. There are no overtly religious overtones in the movie, it is just bland all-around.

There are three Johnny Lingos, and none of them appear until well into the film. It starts with the Chief (Paratene), who discovers a baby boy on his island. He adopts the boy as his own, but his jealous wife blames the child for every misfortune. Soon, young Tama (Tausani Simei-Barton) is an outcast, believed by everybody to be an omen of bad luck. He befriends a girl named Mahana (Fokikovi Soakimi), another outcast. Her father is the island drunk, and she is, well, the script says she is ugly. Because of their status, the two feel a bond of togetherness. Tama decides to run away, and promises to come back for Mahana when he is older.

Tama, near death, winds up on the island of Johnny Lingo (George Henare, Crooked Earth, Once Were Warriors). Lingo is renowned and beloved in the area for being a gifted and fair trader. He is kind, smart, and sees a bit of his own youthful rebellion in Tama. Tama tries to steal from Lingo, and the punishment is that Tama must work for Lingo to pay off the debt. Tama hates this, because he wants to be his own man, dislikes Lingo's tough assistant (Alvin Fitsmanu, The Other Side of Heaven), and must delay his promise to Mahana. Yet, he never forgets, and the years pass, and now Tama (Joe Folau, The Other Side of Heaven, The Whole of the Moon) is a strapping, handsome young man who knows the importance of responsibility. After some more after school special-type lessons, he returns, now as Johnny Lingo, to his old island to keep his promise to Mahana.

Mahana (Katye Ferguson) is older, but still an outcast. Tama/Lingo decides to hold a contest where he will choose a wife from the women of the island, intending to pick Mahana, who finds him despicable (she doesn't realize he is Tama). It's pretty obvious what eventually happens, and screenwriters Riwia Brown (Flight of the Albatross, Once Were Warriors) and John Garbett do not disappoint (or they do, depending on how one looks at it). It's hard to knock a film as earnest as this one is, and director Steven Ramirez sure shot some beautiful scenery, but everything here smacks of amateurism. The lines are simplistic and the actors (especially the children) fare poorly with them. The quality of acting is probably the most distracting element of the film, since it takes the audience out of this little fairy tale. While most of the central themes make sense, some condescend to children. Kids are smarter than this, and they deserve a better movie. Yes, The Legend of Johnny Lingo is something an entire family can watch together, but it is also something that will probably bore anybody over the age of ten.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 31 minutes, Rated G.

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