Making an attempt to grow along with a fanbase that might’ve aged out of its source material, the live-action, family adventure-comedy Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a bit of a gamble, but one that pays off fairly well. Spinning off from the popular, preschool aimed animated Nickelodeon series, Dora and the Lost City of Gold fast-forwards to tell a story about the beloved young explorer’s awkward early teenage years. The end results are a bit uneven, and I’m not positive that everyone who grew up on Dora’s colourful antics will be able to get on board with the silly, tongue-in-cheek tone of her first big screen outing, but overall, the film has plenty of nice things to say about the infectious nature of discovery, representation for people of colour, and the gleeful joy of embracing your own inner weirdo. I think it’s a lot better than I was expecting (not having grown up with Dora, myself), but your mileage may vary.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is set a decade after the events of the animated series. Her best friend and cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) has left the South American jungle with his parents for big city life in California. During one of her trademark explorations through the jungle with her monkey buddy, Boots, Dora (Isabela Moner) stumbles upon an ancient relic that functions as a map to a lost Incan civilization, full of untold riches and “more gold than the rest of the world combined.” Dora wants to follow her parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) on the long and dangerous journey to find the lost city of Parapata, but they would prefer if she joined her cousin in America and learned some much needed socialization skills in high school.
Truthfully, the fish-out-of-water set-up for the first half of Dora and the Lost City of Gold is more entertaining than the kiddie version of Tomb Raider that follows it, and really an entire movie or series could be made from the hero’s experiences in high school. Director James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking Glass) and writers Matthew Robinson (The Invention of Lying, Monster Trucks) and Nicholas Stoller (The Five Year Engagement, Get Him to the Greek) do their best to try and retain the playful essence of Dora while updating her for an older crowd. There are still moments where Dora turns to the camera and asks the audience to pronounce something she just said while everyone around her wonders who she’s talking to while looking perplexed. No one tries to explain how she communicates with Boots, why there’s a talking, kleptomaniac fox (voiced by Benicio Del Toro) chasing her, or how she ended up with a talking backpack. Occasionally, she’ll break into song at inappropriate moments, annoying everyone around her in the process. In short, high school isn’t going to be easy for the perpetually optimistic, quirky, and confident Dora, and Diego, who’s just trying to get through his four years in peace, is mortified that he has to be seen with her.
While it’s certainly sillier and slightly more adult than teens who grew up with the character might be used to, Dora and the Lost City of Gold has painted its main character in an interesting and likable light. While Dora – who’s played perfectly by Moner, a young performer with exceptional comedic timing – might appear annoying to some of the folks around her, she’s the human embodiment of irrepressible joy and wonder. Stoller, Robinson, and Bobin paint the character like a younger version of Netflix’s Kimmy Schmidt, a kind, sheltered human being who has a limited understanding of the world outside her own experiences, but doesn’t let her own shortcomings stop her. While Dora and the Lost City of Gold doesn’t reach the fourth-wall breaking heights of Deadpool, Enchanted, or even the underrated and to-this-day misunderstood Josie and the Pussycats movie, the tone fits this version of the character well. Even if Dora seems like an oddball, she’s still worth rooting for. She doesn’t understand people, but she absolutely loves everyone she meets before actually getting to know them. She sees the good in people, even if they don’t see it themselves. She’s always happy, and to some degree, that feeling is infectious thanks to Moner’s performance and the witty writing. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is tonally in line with what Bobin and Stoller previously tried to do with the most recent Muppets films, but they’re far more successful this time out.
There isn’t much time spent exploring Dora’s high school experiences, however, as our hero, Diego, and two classmates – the uppity class president, Sammy (Madeleine Madden), and nerdy fraidy-cat, Randy (Nicholas Coombe) – are kidnapped from a class field trip by a bunch of generic baddies and shipped back to darkest Peru. The villains want Dora to track down her parents, who went missing and lost contact with the outside world weeks earlier, and from there Dora and the Lost City of Gold becomes a serviceable, generic family adventure picture that only embraces the wit of the film’s first thirty minutes in fits and starts (save for an ambitious, animated hallucinogenic freak out sequence, making this the second movie this week that unexpectedly includes such a scene).
The dynamic between Dora and her freaked out classmates is well established and executed, and this half of the film introduces Eugenio Derbez’s character: a mysterious fellow explorer who says he wants to help the kids in their time of need. Derbez is a good sport, and adds some nice slapstick moments to the film, but the best adults here are Peña and Longoria, who have outstanding chemistry. The second half of the film may not be as funny and fleet-footed as the set-up, but it does have more of Peña, who has the two funniest moments in the entire film: one where he tries to explain to Dora what a rave is and the other when he defends his daughter against the threats of the villains while throwing all of her new friends unwittingly under the metaphorical bus. Peña remains one of the biggest scene stealers in recent memory, and his casting as Dora’s dad is spot-on.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold loses points for feeling like the scripts of two very different movies have been hastily stitched together, and at points the film visually looks like it was a rush job. The production design and locations are nifty, if somewhat generic, but the CGI is frequently dodgy and out of place with the surroundings. Certain plot elements (including one revolving around a wise, but spooky old woman who lives in the jungle) feel like they’ve been drastically cut down without fully explaining their significance to the story in better detail. With a bit more retooling, time, and effort, Dora and the Lost City of Gold could’ve been a bigger surprise than merely just something that’s better than expected.
In spite of some glaring and obvious faults, Dora and the Lost City of Gold proves to be a reasonably enjoyable film thanks to Moner’s consistently loveable leading turn. She anchors the film with a great deal of conviction and warmth. At a time where young Latin Americans could use some strong big screen heroes worth rooting for, Dora and the Lost City of Gold does rather nicely. She’s a plucky hero stuck in a cynical world who doesn’t pretend to be someone she’s not. It’s not a great film in a lot of respects, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold succeeds primarily because that message sticks perfectly.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, August 9, 2019.
Check out the trailer for Dora and the Lost City of Gold: