A 1969 short film produced by Brigham Young U. gets feature-length treatment in "The Legend of Johnny Lingo," a waterlogged seafaring adventure targeting family auds. Pic is better at conveying positive, character-building life lessons than at recapturing the grandeur of such movies as "Kidnapped" and "Treasure Island."

A 1969 short film produced by Brigham Young U. gets feature-length treatment in “The Legend of Johnny Lingo,” a waterlogged seafaring adventure targeting family auds. Pic is better at conveying positive, character-building life lessons than at recapturing the grandeur of such movies as “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island.” Kids with healthy attention spans, however, ought to be engaged, while parents who blanched at the scatological content of “The Cat in the Hat” will find this far more acceptable. Pic has grossed roughly $800,000 in three months of limited nationwide release via nascent distrib Innovation. MGM has acquired worldwide video rights.

Pic reps a reunion for several of the key creative participants behind the 2001 Mormon missionary drama “The Other Side of Heaven”: producers Gerald R. Molen (a regular producer of Steven Spielberg’s films) and John Garbett, and editor Steven Ramirez, here taking on helmer duties as well. This pic, while retaining the earlier film’s scenic Polynesian setting, is notably more secular in its approach, preaching only the gospel of taking responsibility for one’s own actions and not judging a book by its cover. Like its 1969 predecessor, distributed as a secular educational film, pic is derived from the short story “Johnny Lingo’s Eight Cow Wife,” written by the late novelist Patricia McGerr, a Catholic.

Of course, some short stories were meant to remain exactly that. Co-screenwriters Garbett and Riwia Brown (“Once Were Warriors”) have opted to keep McGerr’s tale more or less intact as the third act of the film, concocting an elaborate backstory for the characters that accounts for most of pic’s first hour.

A baby boy mysteriously washes off Malio Island during a fierce rainstorm. At first deemed to be a gift from the gods, he is christened Tama by the island’s imposing tribal chief (Rawiri Paratene, memorable as the grandfather in “Whale Rider”) and raised as the chief’s own son.

But as Tama (played as a youngster by Tausani Simei-Barton) grows up, his constant clumsiness and bad luck convince the villagers he is cursed. Tama is bounced from one unwanting family to the next, eventually ending up in the home of the village drunkard, whose daughter, Mahana (Fokikovi Soakimi), is considered to be the ugliest and most undesirable girl in the village. Outcasts both, Tama and Mahana develop a special childhood friendship, until Tama decides to run away in search of his real family. He promises Mahana that someday he will return for her.

Setting off with few supplies and a sailing vessel that is essentially a homemade windsurfing board, Tama eventually washes up on yet another island, badly sunburned and dehydrated. He is nursed back to health by the imposing Chief Steward (Alvin Fitisemanu), right-hand man to Johnny Lingo, “the wealthiest trader in all the islands.”

Lingo, played with larger-than-life grandeur by George Henare, is not, we learn, the first bearer of that famous name, but rather the protege of the original Johnny Lingo, who similarly sailed the high seas doing good deeds. He takes Tama under his wing and, as the years pass, it’s easy to guess that Tama (played as an adult by Joe Falou) will eventually become the next Lingo.

Getting to that point in the story (essentially where McGerr first began hers) takes an inordinate amount of time. Pic only really springs to life in the final act, when Tama (now the new Johnny Lingo) returns to Malio to go about the “Cinderella”-like task of choosing a bride. (The adult Mahana is played by Kayte Ferguson). By this point, though, much of what the pic has to say about the false nature of appearances has, in one way or another, already been expressed.

In his first directorial outing, Ramirez opts for conventional stagings and, despite pic’s widesceren lensing, fails to make vivid use of New Zealand and Cook Islands locales.

The Legend Of Johnny Lingo

Production

An Innovation Film Group release of a Morinda, Inc. and Tahitian Noni presentation of a Molen/Garbett production in association with the Stable Moving Image. Produced by John Garbett, Gerald R. Molen. Executive producers, Tim Coddington, Brad Pelo. Directed by Steven Ramirez. Screenplay, Riwia Brown, John Garbett, based on the story "Johnny Lingo's Eight Cow Wife" by Patricia McGerr.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision widescreen), Allen Guilford; editor, Steven Ramirez; music, Kevin Kiner; production designer, Rob Gillies; art director, Roger Guise; set dresser, Jennifer Ward; costume designer, Jane Holland; sound (Dolby Digital), Hammond Peak; supervising sound editor, Dave Whitehead; sound designer, Tim Prebble; visual effects, Oktobor; visual effects supervisor, Dean Lyon; assistant director, Tony Simpson; casting, Christina Asher. Reviewed at Laemmle One Colorado Cinema, Pasadena, Nov. 19, 2003. MPAA Rating: G. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Johnny Lingo - George Henare Chief - Rawiri Paratene Tama - Joe Falou Chief Steward - Alvin Fitisemanu Mahana - Kayte Ferguson Pioi - Hori Ahipene Hoku - Sima Urale Young Tama - Tausani Simei-Barton Young Mahana - Fokikovi Soakimi Scary Island Chief - Pete Smith
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