Monday, 22 May 2023

Sheena (1984)

Sheena, released in 1984, is a movie that has few defenders. That’s perhaps a bit unfair. You have to remember that Sheena Queen of the Jungle was a comic-book heroine. She made her first appearance in that form in 1937. There were later some short stories and there was a 1950s TV series but she was first and foremost a comic-book heroine. She was in fact the first ever comic-book heroine (predating Wonder Woman by several years).

If the 1984 movie has a plot that seems like something out of a comic book I’d suggest that that was probably intentional.

Sheena was certainly conceived as a female Tarzan. All the jungle girls who would feature in American movie serials in the 40s and 50s (such as the excellent 1941 Jungle Girl) and in other media are essentially descendants of Sheena.

The movie starts with a prologue. Two American doctors, a husband and wife, are in Africa (in Zambouli territory) with their young daughter Janet. Janet’s parent discover an astonishing medical secret but are killed when a mountain caves in on them. Janet, renamed Sheena, is raised by the Zambouli’s female shaman. The Zambuli see the appearance of the child as the fulfilment of a prophecy about a golden girl who will protect the tribe. Since Janet/Sheena has golden hair she must certainly be the one.

Flash forward some years and Sheena (Tanya Roberts) has grown into a gorgeous blonde jungle queen.

There is trouble in the offing. Valuable mineral deposits have been found in Zambouli territory. The king of Tigora (which includes the Zambouli lands) respects the wishes of the Zambouli and will not allow mining in their lands. The king’s younger brother Prince Otwani however sees the chance to make a lot of money. If only he could get the king out of the way.

The king’s financée Zanda has a plan. She’s having an affair with Prince Otwani and she’d like the king out of the way as well. Her plan is to have the king killed and frame the Zambouli shaman for the crime.

A couple of American TV sports reporters are in Tigora doing a story on Prince Otwani, who had spent a lot of time in the States and had been a major football star. They accidentally get the assassination on videotape.

The shaman is arrested and imprisoned but Zanda and the prince had reckoned without Sheena, and Sheena’s animal allies.

Sheena and TV sports reporter Vic Casey (Ted Wass) find themselves on the run from the mercenaries hired by the prince. It all seems hopeless when they’re both captured but Sheena has the entire jungle on her side.

This is essentially a light kids’ adventure movie. It flopped at the time and critics hated it. Maybe U.S. audiences were not ready for big-budget comic-book movies. Or maybe the problem was that it wasn’t quite clear what the target audience was. It has a comic-book feel and while there’s lots of action much of that action has a Saturday morning kids’ TV feel to it. But the body count is rather high for such a movie and some of the violence is a bit graphic for a kids’ audience.

There’s also the nude scene. I’m the last person in the world to complain about a nude scene, especially when it’s Tanya Roberts getting naked. And it’s a very tasteful, innocent and rather charming nude scene. And it does serve a purpose, since Sheena at the time is only just beginning to become aware of herself as a woman. On the other hand the nudity might have made the distributors nervous about promoting Sheena as a kids’ movie.

You could argue that either the violence should have been toned down and the nudity dropped in order to make it more overtly family-friendly, or alternatively the violence and the nudity should have been amped up to aim for an older drive-in movie audience.

As it stands it’s still a likeable enjoyable jungle girl romp. It’s nicely paced and the location shooting in Kenya is impressive.

Tanya Roberts was given a hard time but critics for this movie but I think her performance is fine. Sheena is supposed to be a bit odd, a mixture of wildness and innocence, of naïvete and wisdom, and for my money Roberts gets that across effectively.

There’s nothing really wrong about any of the performances. Nobody was taking things too seriously and the performances reflect that, but it’s not a movie that we’re supposed to take seriously.

I have to be honest. I liked this movie quite a bit. Highly recommended.

Sheena finally gets a decent anamorphic DVD release, from Umbrella in Australia. It looks lovely.  

Incidentally the 1955 TV series Sheena Queen of the Jungle is worth a look if only for Irish McCalla in the title role.

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