The Legend of Johnny Lingo

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Strictly speaking, “The Legend of Johnny Lingo” is not a “Mormon movie.” Its director and producers are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the film itself has nothing to do with the religion.

But its primary financial backer is Morinda, Inc., the Orem, Utah-based makers of Tahitian Noni Juice, one of those health drinks that you buy through distributors (rather than at stores, where reputable drinks are sold).

And the concept, while based on a 1962 short story, is nonetheless only known to anyone today because the LDS Church produced a 24-minute film version in 1969 that has since become a part of Mormon popular culture. Non-Mormons probably have no interest whatsoever in the new film, but take my word for it, the Mormons are curious to see the kitschy old fable re-created on the big screen.

They’d be better off viewing the old short. The feature-length version is, not surprisingly, too long — why take 90 minutes to tell a story that can be successfully told in 24? — and manages to obscure the one thing the original had going for it: its uplifting message about self-worth.

The story is of a South Pacific island a century or so ago on whose shore an abandoned infant washes up. The boy is named Tama (Tausani Simei-Barton) and bounces from family to family, seeming to bring trouble with him wherever he goes. His one friend is Mahana (Fokikovi Soakimi), an unpopular, unattractive girl whose father is an alcoholic and always has debris in his hair. The kids enjoy a chaste, “Blue Lagoon” sort of young romance, but Tama ultimately leaves the island, promising to return someday for Mahana.

In his travels, he runs into a jovial fellow called Johnny Lingo (George Henare), who teaches Tama (played as an adult by Joe Falou) how to be a successful trader. Eventually, Tama — who assumes the title of Johnny Lingo when the other one dies — uses this knowledge to obtain a wife.

It is far afield from the original film, and from Patricia McGerr’s short story. In those versions, Johnny has no backstory; he is simply a handsome, sought-after bachelor who arrives on the island to bargain for a wife. He does this in the new version, too, but Mahana’s subsequent transformation is not nearly as striking, nor the theme of self-worth as well-pronounced.

Steven Ramirez, heretofore primarily a film editor, displays basic proficiency in his directorial debut. His actors’ performances in this Polynesian Cinderella story are average and mostly likable, though none of them really stands out. It’s not a bad film, and it has a certain sweetness to it. It’s just so unnecessary, that’s all. Giving Johnny and Mahana a backstory waters down the movie’s impact, rather than enhancing it.

As a side note, the film contains no fewer than four by-name references to noni juice, always accompanied by a positive appraisal of the drink. The reason, of course, is to boost consumer interest in the product, since Tahitian Noni Juice, you will recall, is a sponsor. In my case, the attempt has backfired, as the references are so annoying and obvious that they solidified my determination never to drink the vile liquid again.

C (1 hr., 30 min.; G, despite having some mild crude humor and brief partial non-sexual nudity.)

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