Sheena (1984) / Adventure-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG for nudity, sensuality and violence (definitely PG-13 by today's standards)
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Tanya Roberts, Ted Wass, Donovan Scott, Trevor Thomas, Elizabeth of Toro, France Zobda, Clifton Jones, John Forgeham
Director: John Guillermin
Screenplay: David Newman, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the comic book, "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle", by S.M. Iger and Will Eisner)
Review published July 26, 2006
Sheena is based on the old-time comic book character created by legend Will Eisner along with creative partner S.M. “Jerry” Iger back in the Golden Age of comics, in the 1930s through the 1950s. While not considered anything more than a marginal character of comic book lore today, Sheena does make the history books by being the very first female character to star in her own title with “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle”, which debuted in the Spring of 1942. The character also would serve as the subject of a short-lived television show in the mid-1950s, followed by nearly three decades of relative obscurity.
Sheena was revived somewhat in 1984 as a starring vehicle for babe du jour Tanya Roberts (A View to a Kill, The Beastmaster), probably more as a way to titillate audiences into movie theaters with gratuitous shots of Ms. Roberts’ body than as an earnest adaptation fueled by comic book nostalgia. Let’s face it, director Guillermin (King Kong, Shaft in Africa) just can’t seem to find a way to shoot Roberts doing anything in a non-seductive way, whether bathing, climbing a tree, or even just standing still. Sheena is little more than exploitation cinema given the major studio treatment.
In the film, a young girl is left orphaned when her geologist parents are killed in a major cave-in while exploring the source of mystical healing soil found near the African jungle. The native Zambouli villagers immediately adopt the girl, dubbing her “Sheena”, the future queen of the jungle. Sheena grows up to be a strikingly beautiful woman, learning how to communicate and control animals with her mind, ride zebras, and other mystical arts,
Trouble brews in her territory when Prince Otwani (Thomas, Inseminoid), an ex-football placekicker, joins in a plot to assassinate his brother, King Jabalani (Jones, The Great McGonagall), so that he can gain untold riches from the rich Zambouli lands. Shaman, one of the Zambouli leaders, is framed for the killing, but a visiting American news crew, led by charismatic reporter Vic Casey (Wass, Curse of the Pink Panther), captures the events as they happen, showing that a major coup was in play. Otwani, wanting the incriminating tape back at any cost, sets about nabbing Vic before he can escape, but with the help of Sheena and her animal friends, Casey means to get out of the country to set the record straight.
Despite the eye-candy nature of the promotional material for Sheena, the film itself was a critical and commercial failure. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it has enjoyed a bit more success on video and cable showings, but it’s not hard to figure out why. If there are any other movies with a PG-rating that have more nudity or sensuality than this film, I certainly can’t think of any examples offhand.
It’s difficult to tell if the camp value gained from watching trash like Sheena is intentional or not. It’s impossible not to think that such laugh-inducing dialogue could ever be taken seriously, but at the same time, Guillermin’s direction appears to be so earnestly serious that it makes one wonder if he were actually trying to make a good movie out of such apparent nonsense. Guillermin’s credentials would suggest he did take the project with some seriousness, as he had previously directed two similarly themed Tarzan films, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan Goes to India.
Perhaps a director willing to see the humor value in the material could have made a reasonably entertaining popcorn movie out of all this, and while Sheena frequently provides many so-bad-it’s-good moments, as a whole, the movie is tediously boring. The running time desperately needs to be trimmed, as there’s just not enough story here to carry the load of a nearly two-hour film, especially one that has such a barebones plot with minimal dialogue.
There are really only two major reasons to see Sheena, and no, they're not the two you’re thinking of, you perv. OK, well – yes, one of them is really the two in your mind: the scintillating physique of Tanya Roberts. If you didn’t get enough of seeing Roberts in skimpy, skin-tight clothing in the very similar vehicle, The Beastmaster, you can see her in all her glory, and I do mean all, in Sheena. The other reason is not as obvious, but is equally alluring for those of like mind, and that is the sheer b-movie value of it. Despite being a major studio release, the script and scant characterizations suggest a cheapie z-grade experience, especially appealing for those that like trash cinema.
With such weak acting, a bad script, uninteresting direction, and just an outdated idea for a movie in general, the prospect of Sheena delivering a movie of solid quality would appear to have been an impossibility. If only they could have realized this earlier and trimmed down the 117 minutes down by about a half hour, we’d have a movie I would happily recommend for all lovers of bad movies, instead of only the most masochistic.
-- Also made into a television series that ran from 2000-2002, starring Gena Lee Nolin.
©2006 Vince Leo