3.5 out of 5 stars.
When a live-action adaptation of the popular children’s cartoon “Dora the Explorer” was first announced there was a lot of confusion as to just what exactly that would look like. The show was a staple of the Nick Jr. block on Nickelodeon for eight seasons, with viewers following young Dora, her monkey friend boots, and others on quests, with educational games, puzzles, and songs along the way. It doesn’t sound like fodder for the most exciting feature film, but “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” through the way that it approaches the source material, turns out to be a fun and surprising adventure movie for kids and adults alike.
Directed by James Bobin, the film follows Dora (Isabela Moner), a teenager who lives with her explorer parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) in the jungles of Peru. Dora shares her parents’ curiosity and love of adventuring, but when they get a lead on the location of the secret Incan city Parapata, they decide that Dora isn’t ready to accompany them. Instead, they send her to Los Angeles to live with her aunt, uncle, and cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) so she can attend high school and meet other kids her age. But the overly-enthusiastic Dora has a hard time fitting in, and tensions with Diego and her peers are at their peak when she, Diego, awkward nerd Randy (Nicholas Combe) and the high maintenance Sammy (Madeleine Madden) are kidnapped by mercenaries in search of Parapata and taken to Peru. It’s up to Dora, Diego, her fellow students, and a professor named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) to find her missing parents before the mercenaries do.
One of the best things this movie could have done was age up Dora from elementary school age to teenager. This allows the character the ability to both grapple with social issues—like making friends at school—and also go on a crazy, dangerous adventure like what we see in this movie. This also allows the character to be played by Moner, who brings the same chipper personality that we see in the cartoon to her character here, but also a lot more intelligence and charm. While many of the other characters in the film (particularly Derbez and Temuera Morrison) play pretty stereotypical characters—not that they do a bad job, that’s just want the script calls for—Moner gets to be a different sort of action heroine, and is able to bring a lot more depth to her character.
The other interesting thing this movie did was choose an unexpected target audience. This film wasn’t made for the kids who watch Dora now, or even those who grew up watching her—not that they won’t enjoy this movie. There’s plenty of poop jokes and terrible, cartoony CGI characters to go around. Rather, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” often feels like it was made for the adults who had to sit around and watch their children watch the show. There’s a lot of self-deprecating humor that’s laugh out loud funny (one of the first scenes in the movie shows young Dora staring directly into the camera and saying, “Can you say delicioso?” while her parents look on, confused as to who she is talking to). It knows that source material is a bit absurd, and doesn’t shy away from recognizing that. If you’re actually worried that this movie doesn’t resemble the show at all, don’t be; the film finds plenty of ways to retain the spirit of the source material while simultaneously embellishing it.
The story itself is also surprisingly twisty and complex, as well as steeped in Latin American culture. It balances the pacing very nicely as well; we spend just enough time with Dora in the city to establish how she doesn’t fit in, and get to know the different personalities of her classmates, before moving on to an Indiana Jones-esque quest that forces Dora and her friends to use both their physical and mental prowess to beat the bad guys and find the lost city.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” isn’t a masterpiece of the genre, but it does exactly what it set out to do, and does it well. It is consistently entertaining for all ages—not too scary or serious for kids, not too dumbed down for adults—regardless of one’s familiarity with the series, and even has some fun surprises along the way. So next time a preschool cartoon gets picked up for a big budget live-action feature film adaptation, maybe don’t poke fun at it right out of the gate. It could end up being one of the most entertaining movies you see all summer.
Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG.