Movie Review: Dora and the Lost City of Gold.
Dora explores live-action territory in this fantastic family-friendly offering filled with humor and fun.
Just when I thought summer had overstayed its welcome, Dora the Explorer surprises me with a delightful adventure. Brimming with energy and laughs, this adaptation of the popular children’s education show hits all of the right beats. Isabela Moner plays Dora with all of the energy and sunny disposition of the animated character, while reinventing the role to appeal to all ages. Director James Bobin’s adventure flick is equally silly and smart, mashing up the educational riffs of the series with action and pervasive humor that works for kids and adults. Capped off by a rollicking final dance sequence, I left Dora and the Lost City of Gold with a smile. In a year of cookie-cutter, safe adaptations, this romp goes far enough off the beaten path to craft a memorable experience.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019).
Dora spent her childhood exploring the jungle with her archaeologist parents, but as she gets ready to enter school, life begins to change. Despite her love of the wild world, a teenage Dora (Isabela Moner) is sent to live with Diego (Jeffrey Wahlberg) and his family in the big city in America. Adjusting to high school life looks to be a tougher adventure than outrunning wild animals in the rain forest. When Dora’s family goes missing looking for a fabled Peruvian city of gold, Dora, Diego, and their fellow misfit classmates wind up being recruited to head in to the jungle to find her parents…and the mythical treasure of Parapata.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is packed with talent. Isabela Moner is eye-opening as Dora. She captures the cheerful, high energy of the TV show, while also investing Dora with drives and emotional depth that makes the transition to a teenage-centric story resonate. She has great chemistry with Eva Longoria and Michael Peña, who play her parents, and their dynamic provides a lot of humor. Michael Peña in particular steals many of the scenes with his hilarious antics. The rest of the young cast do a solid job of rounding out what could have been simple stereotypical roles. Whalberg’s Diego is a nice contrast to Dora, as he’s buried the adventuresome spirit they used to share in order to survive as a Latino student in an American high school.
Many of the roles and stories in Dora could have come off as clichéd or stereotypical, but get fresh life because of the multicultural ethos of the production. The film celebrates its Latin American heritage organically. The story is naturally infused with Latinx culture, language, and perspectives, and it grounds the sometimes breezy narrative. For all of the silly antics, the film also deals with deeper issues with a gentle touch. The divide between Dora and Diego’s experiences of their heritage is just one example. Later in the film, the character’s almost off-handedly bring up the legacy of European colonization, rattling off a list of European countries that plundered the Inca empire. It contrasts nicely with the constant reminder from Dora’s parents that they are explorers, not treasure hunters, and they leave the artifacts they find where they belong – to the indigenous peoples.
I really found it refreshing that the film felt comfortable in its identity. Recent films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians have opened the door for films that are at home with not having to justify themselves to a white audience. It’s not a political statement that the film features Latinx characters played by a cast that is majority of Latinx heritage. It’s completely organic to the piece, and allows a richer experience.
I did have a few minor gripes. Dora and the Lost City of Gold does capture the feel of classic treasure hunt films – with some notable nods to Indiana Jones – but it wasn’t exactly a good treasure hunt movie. The puzzles just weren’t clever enough, or pulled off seamlessly. The key to a great puzzle comes from prepping the audience so that the solution feels like a “Eureka!” moment. When we see a previous item or idea reworked to become the key to the riddle, it’s really satisfying. Indiana Jones has his little black notebook and The Goonies have a treasure hunter’s diary so that when they pull a solution out of the air, we know where it came from. A lot of the puzzles in Dora are either solved with brute luck or we don’t get set-ups for how the characters know the solutions. At the end, there’s a scene very reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the bad guy makes a foolish but explicable choice and the hero makes a noble but inexplicable choice. Indy has a running monologue that explains why he made his choice. Dora just gets it right without any explanation.
I had no clue what I was going to see when I ponied up for my ticket to Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Thankfully, this film did nearly everything well. It has enough nods to the show to please fans without coming across as a nostalgia strip-mine. It also plays with the show’s tropes in clever ways, either updating them for a teen aged version or poking good-natured fun at them. The film is filled with jokes that cover a range of styles so that kids and adults both have things to laugh at. It manages to be silly about its smartness and smart about its silliness. While I didn’t love the treasure hunting bits, it more than made up for that aspect by having a startling amount of well choreographed action sequences. The cast is fantastic. The CG for the animals was just OK, but they were voiced by Benicio Del Toro and Danny Trejo, so even that was a delight.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold just has a great synergy to its pieces. I actually walked out of a summer movie hoping it would get a sequel! The chemistry between the cast and the director and the script begs for another outing. If they tighten up the puzzles a touch, I could see an annual outing with Dora the Explorer becoming a highlight of the summer.