The vast expanse of azure, Polynesian beauty quickly blackens into a raging sea that sweeps a mysterious, baby-bearing canoe onto a remote South Pacific island at the turn of the last century. Malio Island’s chief quickly proclaims the boy a gift of the gods, christens him Tama, and names him his heir. Not everyone is pleased. Incensed this strange child has been chosen over her own, the chief’s wife stirs dissention among the tribe's female ranks. "Only the god of mischief would send such a child straight from the undercurrents," she shrieks, pointing at Tama’s flaming red birthmark. Her words spark a wildfire of rumors, and soon Tama is being blamed for everything from missing trinkets to crop failures. Caving in to his wife’s hysteria, the chief eventually denounces Tama (now a young boy) and turns him out. Blown from one family's hut to the next by the ill winds of gossip and slander, Tama is finally reduced to accepting scant food and shelter from the island drunk and his unkempt daughter, Mahana. Fellow outcasts, Tama and Mahana quickly bond and together brave the cruel taunts of the other island children. But the now-adolescent Tama can't stand such a miserable life sentence, and builds a boat to escape. He reluctantly leaves Mahana behind, fervently vowing to return for her.
The "god of blessings" seems to be with Tama when he washes ashore on the island of "The Great Johnny Lingo—wealthiest trader in all the islands." There, he learns what it is to be a man under the loving, patient tutelage of Lingo, who instills in his young charge rich life lessons while training him in the fine art of trading. Then, on a voyage with Lingo, Tama discovers he's much more than an orphaned baby lost on the high seas. He's the son of a chief. Now he must decide between his birthright and the only father he’s ever known, Johnny Lingo. And there’s something else Tama must do, too … fulfill the promise he made to Mahana eight years earlier.
positive elements: Despite being treated poorly and cast aside by his fellow islanders (or perhaps because of it), Tama exhibits a wealth of good qualities. He tenderly rocks an upset baby in the middle of the night. He comes to Mahana’s defense when she’s being ridiculed. He works hard to please each of his foster parents. He turns the other cheek to harsh words and behavior. Mahana also displays loyalty and restraint toward her drunken, provocative father (although at one point she throws eggs in his lap, angry because he promised her to an unacceptable suitor).
Johnny Lingo challenges his chief steward to look beyond Tama’s rough exterior. "There’s a treasure hidden deep in everyone; the adventure is to find it," he says. Lingo turns a bad situation into a teachable moment when Tama steals from him and tries to run away from his troubles and return to "the only one who ever cared for me [Mahana]." Lingo tells Tama that love is "a treasure more valuable than gold," but that caring for a girl with stolen goods is not a true expression of that love. "The more you’re willing to pay, the more valuable the prize," he says. Lingo’s love lesson parallels the biblical truth of God’s ultimate payment of His Son to gain mankind's eternal salvation.
[Spoiler Warning] When Johnny returns to claim Mahana’s hand, her father finally recognizes her true worth and repents of his reprehensible behavior by giving public tribute to her fine qualities. "Her devotion is worth more than any gold," he says, praising her for her hard work and unquestionable virtue.
spiritual content: Most of the spirituality presented is the polytheism common to early island tribes. Although it is true that such pagan philosophies were indigenous, some parents won't want their younger children exposed to them. At least two of the islanders' gods are named onscreen, the "god of blessing" and the "god of mischief." During a violent storm, villagers huddle around their chief praying to the gods for a miracle. When Tama washes ashore, the chief calls him the answer to their prayers from the god of blessings. However, the jealous chief’s wife calls the boy a curse from the god of mischief. A ceremonial drink offering is accidentally spilled, invoking fear of the wrath of the gods. An appeasement offering is said to have pleased the gods. Johnny Lingo’s wife tells Tama that "a good and great god" has brought him safely to their home and will change his life.
sexual content: Tama discovers Mahana bathing in a waterfall and teasingly threatens to hide her clothing until she answers his questions. (No more than a shoulder is bared and the tone is one of childlike flirtation.) A matronly woman propositions Lingo's chief steward with food and affection, promising to "make it worth his while" if he’ll give her daughter special position in Tama's pool of marriage candidates. The steward literally runs from the temptation (just as Joseph ran from Potiphar's wife in Genesis 39).
violent content: The baby Tama washes ashore following a violent storm. A hut burns down and is blamed on Tama’s "bewitchment," but no one is hurt. Fruit is pelted at Tama and Mahana.
crude or profane language: A child is called a "dirty pig" and "ugly." The island women gossip viciously about Tama. Mahana’s father verbally abuses her.
drug and alcohol content: Mahana’s father is always seen in a drunken stupor, a state that’s frowned upon by the islanders. Johnny Lingo sputters on a clear liquid in a short glass, but its contents are not identified. A gang of boys is seen drinking from bottles, weaving and taunting Mahana.
other negative elements: As children, both Mahana and Tama are bullied by their peers. Mahana’s dad threatens to withhold food if the day’s work is not done. Another islander threatens to "be after" children selling kindling if it’s not dry. Tama is told from infancy that he’s bad luck, and the reason behind every island misfortune. Mahana’s father turns his bitter grief over the death of his wife into anger toward his daughter, calling her ugly, worthless and the source of all sorrow. Tama invites Mahana to disobey her father and play hooky from work.
An island matriarch bares (the adult) Tama’s backside to reveal his birthmark, but the camera quickly turns away. There’s also some minor scatological humor (the baby Tama urinates on the chief and, as a boy, Tama creates flatulent water bubbles).
conclusion: The short story this film is based on, Patricia McGerr’s Johnny Lingo’s Eight-Cow Wife, has long been embraced by the Mormon culture. A 1969 short film version was called "the mother of all LDS films" by Mark Saal of the Ogden Standard-Examiner. Inexplicably, neither the original story nor this film exhibits church doctrine. What they do hint at are biblical themes of redemption, forgiveness, self-worth and love.
While there will certainly be no Oscars in The Legend of Johnny Lingo's future, the film's low-budget production values don't overshadow its beautiful heart, captured perfectly when Johnny Lingo tells his chief steward, "The challenge is to take a common stone and polish it into a valuable gem." He himself takes up that challenge with Tama. Under Lingo’s patient love and nurture, Tama sheds the dirt and grime of the negative self-image wrongly imposed on him and sparkles with newfound value and esteem. Tama likewise nurtures Mahana’s transformation by befriending her in childhood and returning to claim her in true Cinderella fashion, paying her father the highest dowry in island history. So Christ redeems our once worthless lives with His love, transforming us into children of great value and honoring us with a place in His family. Johnny teaches Tama, as Christ does His children, that love is the greatest gift of all (1 Cor. 13:13).
Families who decide to take a trip to Tama's islands should spend time afterward talking about the experience. Parents can ask, "How do you react when you’re in trouble?" Tama did some stupid things like lying, running away and getting angry. God wants us to admit our trouble and confess our sins. And He promises to forgive us when we do (1 John 1:9). Also, "How do you steer your life?" When Tama was learning to pilot Johnny’s boat, he needed to steer it in the right direction even when there was no land in sight. Johnny taught Tama to focus on "something that doesn’t change, like the stars." Jesus never changes and wants to show us the right direction for our lives (Heb. 12:2, Ps. 25:4-5). And since some of the movie's positive themes are muddied by the persistent presence of cultural polytheism, parents will want to discuss what the Bible says about the one, true God (1 Cor. 8: 4-6, Ex. 20:3).