Many parents (this one included) have fond memories of Dora the Explorer, the animated Nickelodeon children’s series that provides the springboard for the new live-action film, Dora and the Lost City of Gold. The show, about a little Latinx girl who goes on various adventures with the help of her pet monkey Boots and her talking backpack, along with other friends, was known for breaking the fourth wall so that Dora could engage with her delighted audience directly and solicit their help in solving the puzzles and games that were part of each episode’s quest.
As with many such properties that are charming in their simplicity, and seemingly effortless at reaching a specific audience, the idea of a live-action adventure seems almost counter-intuitive. Surely the guileless nature of the show, not to mention its quirky format, would be lost on today’s way too hip teens, while the character herself would be almost unrecognizable to her core viewership once she is turned into a teenager.
So I’m pleased to report that Dora and the Lost City of Gold somehow manages to indeed capture the bright and chirpy optimism of the show, translating it effectively to a live-action family adventure that provides just enough inside jokes to make parents chuckle and nod knowingly–as when Dora (Isabela Moner) speaks to the audience early on and her befuddled father (Michael Pena) wonders who she is talking to–while also delivering a rousing adventure for the kiddos. To be sure, the movie probably doesn’t hold a whole lot of appeal for anyone over the age of 10, but its determination to stay on target is part of its wistful pleasure.
We first meet Dora at seven (her age on the series), establishing her idyllic life in the rainforest with her archaeologist dad Cole, her zoologist mom Elena (Eva Longoria) and, of course, Boots. Flash forward 10 years, as a now teen Dora is sent to live with her abuelita (Adriana Barraza) and her cousin and childhood bestie, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in “the city.” There, the modern day jungle known as high school seems almost too challenging for our somewhat naïve but relentlessly cheery heroine.
After Dora’s parents disappear while searching for the ancient Incan city of Parapata–the Lost City of Gold–Dora, Diego, dorky Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and semi-mean girl Sammy (Madeleine Madden) are kidnapped by mercenaries who believe Dora can help them locate her parents and thus Parapata and its untold treasures. It’s then up to Dora and her knowledge of the rainforest to guide her friends, find her parents, and try to throw the thieves off the trail before they get there first.
Once the movie gets to the jungle, it finds its stride as a straight adventure story for youngsters, laced with the kinds of mysteries that Dora used to have to figure out in her animated incarnation. The clearly stagebound sets and rather crude CG used to render Boots and the villainous fox named Swiper (a TV Dora staple, voiced here by Benicio Del Toro) actually play into the movie’s retro-kiddie vibe.
For both the adults and kids, knowing references to Backpack and Map (both of which are anthropomorphic on TV), a few snatches of Dora’s songs, and those quick forays beyond the fourth wall provide laughs, as does one hilarious sequence in which Dora and friends are essentially dosed with hallucinogens and find themselves turned into their animated counterparts.
That’s about as meta as Dora and the Lost City of Gold gets. Directed by James Bobin with less of the pop culture zing of his The Muppets, a lot of the movie rides on Moner, an appealingly fresh presence who brings genuine warmth and enthusiasm to the proceedings. The rest of the cast is adequate, and Pena as usual emerges as a close second for MVP after the leading lady. But Moner finds just the right narrow path to walk between child and teen, never giving in to irony along the way. Her Dora may even bring a tear or two to parents’ eyes, as they nostalgically recall watching the original show over and over and over again… a memory that, take it from me, seems more distant yet fond with each passing day.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is out in theaters this Friday, Aug. 9.
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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye