Dora and the Lost City of Gold (James Bobin, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
I came to this movie cold, without any experience with its source material, the popular animated Nickelodeon series Dora the Explorer. That show, which began airing in 2000, features young Dora, 7 years old, and the many adventures she undertakes in the company of her monkey friend Boots, usually opposed by an antagonistic masked fox named Swiper (who “swipes” things from her). She frequently breaks the dramatic fourth wall, addressing the audience to help her solve riddles, or to teach them words in a language not their own (Spanish when the show is in English, and English when it is dubbed for other countries). According to my fiancée and her two daughters, aged 7 and 10, it’s a wonderful series, and that’s all the endorsement I need. Plus, after seeing this delightful cinematic update, which brings Dora into her teen years, I have no doubt that the original show must be equally enjoyable.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold begins with animated titles that quickly segue into live-action versions (Boots and Swiper being the exceptions) of 6-year-old Dora, her parents and cousin Diego as they live free in a South American jungle. Sadly, Diego – also Dora’s best friend – has to return home to the United States, leaving Dora with just Boots as a pal. Flash-forward 10 years, and Mom and Dad decide to ship Dora up north, herself, as they have finally discovered how to find the lost Incan city of Parapata (the “city of gold” of the title), and think it too dangerous for their little girl to come along. Since they are “explorers, not treasure hunters” – an important distinction – their goal is academic, rather than mercenary, but they know that evil lurks in this world and wish to protect their daughter.
But is high school really so safe? When Dora arrives, trained for the perils of the wilderness but not of teenage life, she quickly establishes herself as a backwards freak, much to Diego’s chagrin (he’s changed a bit in the intervening decade). Worry not, however, as the dangers Dora’s parents feared quickly manifest themselves (in the form of actual treasure hunters), and for those Dora is more than prepared. She has just the knife, emergency flare and clever brain to win the day. And don’t forget Boots, her ever-loyal companion.
Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight) plays Dora with the perfect combination of wide-eyed innocence and savvy know-how, her often-silly lines delivered with appropriate deadpan. As her parents, Eva Longoria (Dog Days) and Michael Peña (CHiPS) are amply in on the joke, a wink and a nudge always present (no matter the on-screen threats). Dora’s school chums (including Diego) are also great fun, with Nicholas Coombe (the voice of Ace on Netflix’s Spy Kids: Mission Critical), Madeleine Madden (Marion on Amazon’s serialized remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock) and Jeff Wahlberg (Don’t Come Back from the Moon) all game for anything, as is Eugenio Derbez (How to Be a Latin Lover) as a hapless would-be adventurer. The cast understands exactly what to do, never forgetting that this kids’ movie must also please adults. The humor is therefore always clean, but sometimes marvelously strange, as well.
It’s like an Indiana Jones film for children (or, as my fiancée reminded me, like The Goonies), unashamed of its derivative elements and also proudly sui generis. Though sometimes too ridiculous for its own good, the movie offers enough vigorous bonhomie to make up for (most of) its narrative failings. Dora not only finds what she’s looking for, but so do we in this charming, zippy romp of a thrill-ride. And in the world of 2019 America where people of color are more under attack than ever before, how nice to have this vibrant Latinx heroine staking her claim to stardom. May she get all the gold, and more.