At first blush, a feature film based on the Nick Jr. cartoon Dora the Explorer seems like a non-starter. The show, designed to help preschoolers grasp Spanish-language terms for English phrases, doesn’t scream out for the cinematic treatment, and definitely not the live-action feature treatment. Yet such a film now exists: Dora and the Lost City of Gold both manages to broadly acknowledge its inspiration while cutting its own path as a tween-friendly version of Indiana Jones. It’s a surprisingly funny blend of fish-out-of-water comedy and adventure, even if the familiarity is hard to ignore.
Outside of a brief prologue, the Dora we spend time with is no little kid — she’s a 16-year old who’s being unhappily uprooted from her home in the jungle by her loving parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena), who go off on a journey of their own as they encourage Dora to explore what it’s like to be an average high-schooler in Los Angeles. Dora’s expertise in the jungles of South America, though, leave her ill-equipped to handle the vagaries of high school. Her ebullient spirit is at odds with the dismissive nature of the average high-schooler, as represented by her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). However, she, Diego, and two other high-schoolers are soon abducted while on a field trip, forced by a series of treasure hunters to find a mythical city of gold…the same one her parents are searching for.
The signs of an unexpectedly goofy movie are present before you even meet Dora — after the studio logo, there’s a pre-title card warning that the film we’re about to see is mostly accurate, except for the implication that foxes like to swipe things. (Perhaps the strangest, most off-kilter casting choice here is a loopy-sounding Benicio del Toro as the sneaky Swiper.) Director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller collaborated on the two Muppet movies of the 2010s, and a similar sense of wry charm is present through Dora and the Lost City of Gold. The film mostly sidesteps the way the TV series looks or sounds, but there are a couple of goofy, fourth-wall-breaking gags where Dora asks us to repeat certain phrases to no avail. And Dora’s struggles in the big city to balance her own jungle-driven savvy with, for example, the fact that no other high-schooler would bring a flare with them to class make for a good amount of humor.
Once the four kids are stuck in the jungle, they’re paired with the rubbery-faced Eugenio Derbez, as Alejandro, a linguistics professor with ties to Dora’s folks. Derbez’s shtick varies between seeming mildly funny and mildly exhausting; the few times he gets to do all the heavy lifting, the comedy feels a bit forced. (There’s one specific gag involving quicksand that, depending on your mileage, may make you laugh your head off, or may make you wish that the scene would just end.) As in the rest of the film, the charm largely lies with the younger actors.
As the teenage Dora, Isabela Moner is the right mix of winning and a bit weird. Though the script (co-written by Stoller and Matthew Robinson) leads Dora to a predictable place of accepting herself for who she is even as she gains friends, Moner makes the journey feel less rote than unique. Wahlberg — who is Mark’s nephew — is a nice foil for Moner, as the teenage Diego can’t decide if he’s charmed or perpetually embarrassed by his enthusiastic cousin.
The fun of Dora and the Lost City of Gold lies in the journey, not the destination. Once the eponymous mysterious location is discovered, because of course it is, the film becomes a most remarkable riff on the Indiana Jones franchise. The phrase “most remarkable” here is meant to imply that Dora becomes either a loving homage or a straight-up rip-off of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. (Since both The Last Crusade and The Lost City of Gold were released by Paramount Pictures, I suppose we’ll stick with homage.) Fans of the third film in the Harrison Ford-led franchise will recognize…well, a lot of its climax here, down to similar punchlines even if the bad guys don’t meet deliciously nasty fates.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is charming enough, even as its conclusion smacks of overfamiliarity. A live-action/CGI mix inspired by a preschool animated show doesn’t seem like the kind of movie that would even be remotely tolerable. Yet a winning lead performance, coupled with a slightly cheeky and anarchic storytelling style, are enough to withstand plotting that owes an unpayable debt to the most famous movie adventurer of the modern age. Dora and the Lost City of Gold has no right being as charming and fun as it is, but there’s nothing wrong with a pleasant surprise in the dog days of summer.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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