Exotic locations lend 800 LEAGUES DOWN THE AMAZON an unearned gloss, making the low-budget, underpopulated production look as though it cost far more than it actually did, but it's done in by wooden performances and the dated source material.
Spunky Minha (Daphne Zuniga)--whose father, Juan Garral (Barry Bostwick), owns a prosperous hemp plantation in the middle of the jungle--and Dr. Monoel Valdez (Tom Verica) agree to be married. The wedding is to take place down river, in Brazil, so that Manuel's ailing mother can attend. Juan has
a terrible secret: years earlier, he was falsely convicted of a crime in Brazil and escaped before he was to be executed. He changed his name and started a new life in the jungle, and now avoids leaving the safety of his isolated fiefdom. To attend his daughter's wedding he agrees to make the
journey, a decision which has calamitous consequences.
The entire party sets off downriver in a huge raft. Danger lurks in many forms, including hostile Indians, alligators, piranhas, and poisonous snakes, tropical storms, and ruthless, duplicitous bounty hunter Koja (Adam Baldwin), who has learned Garral's secret and plans to blackmail him. Koja
has come into possession of a document, written in cipher, that proves Garral's innocence. He also lusts for Minha, and demands that Garral give him money and his daughter in return for his silence. Garral refuses and Koja turns him in; Minha and her fiance must race against time to get the
evidence that will prove her father's innocence. While Minha struggles to decipher the document, Valdez tries to engineer Garral's escape and is arrested for his pains. Plucky Minha cracks the code and rides to the last-minute rescue, freeing both her father and her fiance, and the film ends with
their shipboard wedding.
Based on the adventure novel by Jules Verne, 800 LEAGUES DOWN THE AMAZON is very much a product of the 19th century, and it doesn't hold up well. Under the direction of Louis Llosa, the period setting is shallow, confined to costumes, decor, and the occasional marvelous gadget, like the
antiquated diving suit Valdez uses to search underwater for Koja's body; there's no sense of period, of a different time or even a different place. Though the jungle settings are lushly attractive, even they seem somehow false. For proof that a 19th-century Amazon adventure can speak to
contemporary audiences, one need only look to Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, an updated version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness that's as faithful to the novel's spirit as an adaptation could be, or Werner Herzog's hallucinatory AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD.
800 LEAGUES DOWN THE AMAZON is faithful in all the wrong ways: it's slow, bogged down by technological wonders that don't, in retrospect, seem all that inherently wondrous, and treats the jungles and its indigenous inhabitants as background to a boy's escapade that's all about brave white men
taming the savagery of the primitive world. And it's dull as well; rather than a rip-roaring adventure, the entire enterprise has the feel of a theme park ride, peopled by anamatronic models, a feeble simulation of the real thing. (Adult situations, violence.)
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