Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)

Explorer is Her Middle Name

Let’s be honest. As a male in my mid 30s, I knew absolutely nothing about the Nickelodeon children’s animated series Dora the Explorer, created some 20 odd years ago by Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh Valdes and Eric Weiner back in 2000, before walking into her new film, the first live-action big-screen adaptation titled Dora and the Lost City of Gold. And, a good way off from being in the right demographic, I’m sure I missed many of the call-backs, in-jokes and other playful references to the long-running children’s show (which has gone on to spawn books, video games and even a couple of animated features). But as a fun, kid-friendly adventure in the same vein as Indiana Jones (though nowhere near as violent or frightening), Dora checks all the right boxes and is sure to be a hit with its target audience — young tween/ preteen girls, even though the show is skewed more towards preschoolers.

‘Can you say fun, family-friendly adventure?’

Our story opens somewhere deep in the Peruvian jungle, where we’re introduced to a young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) — donning her iconic pink tee and orange shorts — while in the midst of a dangerous treasure-seeking quest with her 6-year-old cousin Diego (Malachi Barton), accompanied by her red-booted companion, a blue-furred monkey named Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo), and her trusty rolled-up Map and utility sack, named Backpack, both of whom look quite similar to their animated counterparts (I did a quick Google search). They’re also being trailed by the thieving masked fox, Swiper (voiced by Benicio Del Toro). It’s all imaginary, of course, and this sequence is very cartoony — and quite reminiscent of the small-screen series, I would assume.

Dora’s make-believe mission, though, is cut short when Diego is shipped off to Los Angeles to live with his folks while Dora remains with her parents, renowned archaeologists Cole and Elena Márquez (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria respectively), who are busy searching for the elusive Inca paradise Parapata, the proverbial ‘City of Gold.’

Cut to ten years later, where we find Dora (now played by Isabela Moner) still living in Peru, having grown into a positive-minded, quick-thinking go-getter just like her mom and dad — she utters the line, ‘If you just believe in yourself, anything is possible,’ right before attempting a death-defying cave jump with best-bud Boots, promptly picking herself up after the inevitable fall. However, with her mother and father finally deciphering the whereabouts of Parapata, Dora is forced to travel to LA to attend high school with Diego (now played by Jeff Wahlberg), whose family she’ll be staying with, giving them enough time to unearth the legendary hidden city. Dora, of course, wants to join them but is sent to the mainland for an ‘adventure’ of her own.

‘… it’s a wild world out there.’

Turns out that the concrete jungle is way scarier than the natural one because, apparently, being chased by pygmy elephants and snapping crocodiles ain’t nothin’ compared to the dangers of high school. Dora, you see, is instantly labeled an outcast when she arrives at the public school she’s enrolled in — pulling a hunting knife and flair out of your backpack will generally do that to ya! Sticking out like a sore thumb, Dora is in desperate need for a makeover, while her penchant for breaking the fourth wall (at one point Moner turns to the audience and asks, “Can you say ‘delicioso’?”) and knack for composing spur-of-the-moment songs (for just about any occasion, even taking a poo), although enduring, make her an easy target. Even Diego wants nothing to do with her, seeing as she’s such an embarrassment — he’s become jaded since leaving South Africa, misinterpreting her glaring optimism and intellect as ‘snobbish.’

Already starting off on the wrong foot, our perky protagonist gets herself in deeper water after inadvertently upstaging honors student Sammy (Madeleine Madden) in front of an entire classroom, the former threatened by Dora’s smarts. And, it doesn’t help that school misfit Randy (Nicholas Coombe), an awkward Disney Channel-type dork, quickly develops a crush on her, wooed by her astronomy knowledge (the guy loves the stars).

Desperate to fit in, the perpetually chipper Dora turns up to a Winter School Dance outfitted as The Sun, taking the theme ‘Come Dressed As Your Favorite Star’ literally, then mimics animal movements on the dancefloor, making a total fool of herself. To make matters worse, there’d been radio silence from her folks, who’d promised to keep in touch — so, she’s a wee bit concerned.

‘The jungle is perfectly safe … usually!’

The next day, while on a school field trip at the museum, circumstances cause Dora to be partnered up with Diego, rival Sammy, and Randy for a scavenger hunt. The cluster of kids, however, wind up being tricked, lured down to a storage room then kidnapped by a bunch of mercenaries dressed as security, who lock them in a crate and dispatch them to Peru. Before long, Dora discovers that their captors want to seek out Parapata, hoping that she’d be the key to tracking down her ‘missing’ parents — who, by now, must’ve located the fabled city. Luckily, Dora and her ‘friends’ are rescued by a professor named Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), who claims to have known Dora’s folks from their days working at the National University of San Marcos in Texas.

Armed with her wits and faithful backpack, which, rather conveniently, hands out a steady supply of recourses, and trailed by their abductors, Dora leads the trope on an expedition through the perilous wilderness, navigating treacherous terrain, and trap-infested caverns and temples, in the hope of reuniting with her mom and dad and safely returning her classmates home.

Directed by James Bobin, Muppets Most Wanted (2014), from a script written by Matthew Robinson, Monster Trucks (2016), and Nicholas Stoller, Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017), Dora and the Lost City of Gold gets a couple of essentials right — and the rest just falls into place.

There’s more to explore!

First up, the casting of Isabela Moner, Instant Family (2018), as heroine Dora is bang on. By keeping the character Latino (as per the telly series) filmmakers have managed to avoid any white-washing controversy; and the 18-year-old Latina knocks it right outta the park, ensuring that even the most cynical of viewers are swept along for the ride — you gotta admire her enthusiasm and commitment. It’s also worth noting that Dora is no Lara Croft, the character set up as an explorer rather than a treasure hunter, her thirst for education driving her exploits — not fame or fortune. And Dora isn’t afraid to be herself, ‘This is me. This is who I am,’ she states, a wonderful take-home message for youngsters, her adolescent upgrade (she’s no longer a child) broadening the movie’s overall appeal.

Secondly, opting for a fantasy take on the Peruvian landscape rather than sheer photorealism — um, The Lion King — works in the film’s favor, the super-stylized forest-y environments complementing the exaggerated kiddie designs of the animals and inhabitants. Do you honestly think adult viewers would accept anthropomorphic talking fox Swiper if he were more life-like? Probably not!

When it comes to the narrative itself, Dora and the Lost City of Gold takes fewer risks — it all feels rather rudimentary, really — Robinson and Stoller’s screenplay recycling elements from both classic and contemporary action-adventure flicks — there’s a pinch of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), some National Treasure (2004), and even a splash of The Goonies (1985). Which is fine, I guess, given that its prepubescent audience probably hasn’t engaged with much of the said material.

‘… nature is calling, so I must go.’

Most of the comedy is for the lil’ ones, too, with plenty of potty humor and slapstick (Derbez, in particular, has a lot of fun with the physical gags), while the action scenes are unapologetically cliché (even the film knows it) — there are wild water slides, floor spikes, collapsing structures, you name it, Dora’s final test ripped straight from the pages of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). There is, however, a great little ‘hallucination’ sequence, which, hands down, stands as the film’s apex — trust me, fans of the series will dig it!

Bobin and co. could have easily made Dora something of a parody — there are blatant meta-jokes while the puzzle-solving scenes almost call for viewer participation — but instead have chosen to travel down a different path, infusing the story with potent messages about the power of knowledge. 21st Century Dora is versed in three languages, English, Spanish and Quechua, the indigenous tongue spoken by the guardians/ stewards of the Lost City (yep, kids are forced to read subtitles), which makes her not only intelligent, but culturally curious as well; coupled with her upbeat attitude (even in the face of danger), rock-hard values, and friendly disposition, Moner’s Dora is a great role model for young females today — much more affable than Brie Larson’s standoffish Captain Marvel.

With Moner more or less stealing the show, the rest of the performances are drowned out — there are a couple of exceptions, though. Michael Peña, Ant-Man (2015), is a hoot, as always — he owns a beatboxing scene — while Eugenio Derbez, The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019), goes all-out as bungling adult adventurer Alejandro, who’s not afraid to look silly for a laugh. The weakest link, though, is Australia’s Madeleine Madden, Picnic at Hanging Rock (2018), whose rendering of know-it-all Sammy feels flat and forced.

Hike more. Worry Less.

Wrapping on a funky new dance rendition of the celebration song ‘Hooray! We Did It’ — which, as I’ve just found out, closes off all of Dora’s adventures — Dora and the Lost City of Gold is sure to charm young moviegoers, offering family-friendly thrills and laughs with some lessons to be learnt along the way — think of it as good clean fun in the dirt. If anything, the picture teaches us that, maybe, there’s a little bit of Dora inside us all, and, as life-long explorers, we need to be more sensitive when it comes to cultures, customs, and natural preservation.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is released through Paramount Pictures Australia