On paper, a live action re-imagining of cartoon adventurer Dora the Explorer sounds like a bomb waiting to happen. The concept was even parodied years ago for CollegeHumor. It seems like the easiest way to make fun of dark and edgy reboots, as the original Dora cartoon is nothing of the sort. Dora is a Latina toddler who loves exploring the jungle where she lives with her best friend, a talking monkey named Boots. She covers similar ground to Sesame Street with a bilingual twist. How do you turn this into a feature-length film? Nickelodeon Studios endeavors to answer this question with August’s Dora and the Lost City of Gold, directed by James Bobin of The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted fame, which manages to succeed at this near-impossible task by respecting the source material and the audience, and by casting a phenomenal young actress named Isabela Moner as Dora herself. That may sound ridiculous, but this movie works far better than I could have expected.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold takes many of its cues from its action-adventure predecessors, most notably National Treasure, Indiana Jones, and The Goonies, but with better morals and a female protagonist. Dora’s parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) explicitly state they aren’t treasure hunters, but explorers. They’re not looking to get rich, they just want to document history. Moner shines from her first moment on screen, being chased through the jungle by elephants, swinging from vines, and discovering golden artifacts. She’s not a kid anymore, but Dora still loves the jungle, her parents, and her best friend Boots, rendered in decent-enough CGI. However, that changes when Dora’s parents tell her she’s going to move to LA to attend high school with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg – yes, nephew of Marky Mark) while they search for the titular lost city of gold.
Dora approaches this new adventure with her signature enthusiasm, which of course marks her for bullying from her classmates. Dora’s fish-out-of-water journey doesn’t last too long. On a trip to a museum, Dora, Diego, and their new friends are kidnapped by mercenaries and taken to the jungles of Peru. Dora takes charge, and the real story begins. What follows plays on standard jungle adventure tropes, but the script is clever enough to add something new to quicksand, booby traps, and jeep chases. One of those clever touches is the use of Swiper the Fox, voiced by Benicio Del Toro (really!). He’s something of a wildcard and is never overused. Plus, his CGI is better than Boots’. The kids are joined by a cowardly professor played by Eugenio Derbez, a crossover star from Mexico who excels at the film’s physical comedy. Together, they have to find the city of Parapata and Dora’s parents before the mercenaries.
The film’s best quality is its refusal to insult the audience for liking Dora and her quirks. Why antagonize people for liking the main character, like some live-action reboots have done? Dora the Explorer was in many ways a groundbreaking character for kids’ television. She taught a generation of children to be curious about nature, all while teaching them Spanish vocabulary. Why wouldn’t the film celebrate Dora and her accomplishments? I understand if Dora and the Lost City of Gold isn’t exactly your first choice for a night out, but it shouldn’t be written off as a crass reboot, especially as a star-making performance for Isabela Moner. At the very least, the kids at my preview screening loved it.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold
Dir. James Bobin
Opens 8/9 everywhere (though the Hassle recommends the Capitol, or your local mom & pop cineplex)