Directed by James Bobin
Starring Isabela Moner, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Peña
If you’ve seen the trailer for Dora and the Lost City of Gold and dreaded the idea of sitting through simplistic messaging, anthropomorphic primates that wear boots, and another misbegotten Hollywood attempt at a cash grab, all in the interest of babysitting your kid or niece, I am here to tell you not to believe the facile marketing: This adaptation of the decades-running Nickelodeon animated series Dora the Explorer will pleasantly shock you.
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Kids’ shows are weird—you only need look at Dora’s fellow Nickelodeon denizen SpongeBob SquarePantsto prove that point—and what makes Dora and the Lost City of Gold fun for adults is that the movie acknowledges those points of surreality and gleefully skewers them. The film opens with a card declaring that foxes who swipe (in reference to the villain of the cartoons, a kleptomaniac fox named Swiper) is a hurtful stereotype, and then proceeds to reimagine the show’s opening number with real kids and CGI animals…along with all the real-world skepticism such a routine might provoke. This is followed by a hilarious gag involving Dora’s habit of breaking the fourth wall to teach the audience some Spanish, and the movie’s delightful self-satirical tone is set.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold reimagines Dora (Isabela Moner) as a 16-year-old whose explorer parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria, working off each other’s comic strengths) feel that all this jungle isolation is bad for her, and so they cart her off to Los Angeles to attend high school while they go off in search of a mythical Incan city named Parapata.
It doesn’t take long for Dora’s relentlessly sunny nature to mortify her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), while her encyclopedic smarts threaten the school’s GPA-chasing queen bee (Madeleine Madden) and fascinate its astronomy-loving outcast (Nicholas Coombe). Even a lunkhead can see that what makes Dora a social pariah is what makes her cool, and once she and her band of misfits get kidnapped by mercenaries bent on claiming Parapata’s legendary stash of gold for themselves, she transforms into a Gen-Z Indiana Jones—just one who believes that a song can get anyone out of a tight spot.
Even a lunkhead can see that what makes Dora a social pariah is what makes her cool
Director James Bobin has managed this feat of balancing smart satire and earnest messaging before, with the 2011 Muppets movie starring Amy Adams and Jason Segel. He and screenwriters Nicholas Stoller, Matthew Robinson and Tom Wheeler make fun of Dora the Explorer’soddities, recognizing how insane it is to interact with talking backpacks and bandit foxes. (Watch out for an animated sequence with psychotropic implications that might have been too scandalously adult for a movie marketed to kids, if it weren’t also hysterical.)
But the filmmakers also take care not to tip the satire into meanness and cruelty, because Dora is nothing if not a celebration of confident girls and Latino culture. And at the center of this tricky balancing act is the charismatic Isabela Moner. Her teenage Dora is giddy and annoyingly optimistic and socially inept, but Moner makes her far from clueless. The actress plays her intrepid explorer with a twinkle that suggests she’s in on the joke, landing every punchline the script gives her.
Moner is so adept at playing the constantly chipper outsider, you almost wish the movie had stayed on its John Hughes trajectory and stuck to her adventures navigating the complexities of adolescent life. But once Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s second halfplunks its cast into the jungle, it falls into a predictable series of Indiana Jones-like escapades that saps the movie of the first half’s merry subversion. Also, the movie could have benefited from a lot less of Eugenio Derbez, playing Dora and the kids’ wilderness chaperone—the Mexican superstar’s frantic scaredy-cat shtick wears out its welcome after the first time he delivers it.
But these are quibbles when you watch Dora and the Lost City of Gold and see it for what it is: a risk-taking adaptation of a long-running property that is funny, fresh and inventive. More than that, in its celebration of Latino values and can-do girlhood, it is a much-needed swipe at our prevailing culture of fear and ignorance. Can you say “Hooray”?
Photographs from Paramount Pictures