Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the first-ever live-action movie based on the popular cartoon children’s show Dora the Explorer, which ran for 8 seasons on the Nickelodeon television network (and, as of this writing, just wrapped its series finale on August 9th, 2019). In that vein, it somewhat functions as a sort of live-action bridge between the original show and Dora and Friends: Into the City!, which functions as a direct sequel to that original show. It was directed by James Bobin from a script by Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller, and finds Dora (played by Isabela Moner) still living in the jungle, now a teenager about to embark on her most dangerous adventure yet: high school in the big city. But when her explorer parents go missing while chasing down a hot lead on the discovery of Parapatta (an ancient Inca city of gold from basically every adventure movie ever), a series of increasingly suspicious events and run-ins with some rival treasure hunters lead Dora and her high school friends, including grown-up cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), on their own adventure through the jungle to recover them…and maybe, just maybe, find this lost city of gold before it’s too late. The film also stars Eugenio Derbez, Madeleine Madden, Nicholas Coombe, Michael Peña, and Eva Longoria.
It happens every year; there’s a children’s/family movie releasing towards the end of the summer, usually based on some former children’s nostalgia property, the marketing for which is absolute rubbish that does its best to make sure the film looks as bad as possible in as few minutes as it can while still establishing that the movie does, in fact, have a plot to follow, however groan-inducing it might seem to older viewers. And although there are more than a few that live up to their marketing as truly insufferable pieces of garbage that nonetheless will entertain small children with enough fart and poop jokes to fill a porta-potty, some of these adaptations rise above the rest to become something that truly the whole family can enjoy. That’s already been the case once this year with Joe Cornish’s surprisingly charming and heartfelt Kid Who Would Be King (a rare exception to the deluge of early-year films of the same type), but it’s an even rarer thing for it to happen twice, and I am as happy as I am shocked to report that Dora and the Lost City of Gold is another such film that, while certainly imperfect in a variety of ways, somehow manages to overcome its largely terrible marketing to become something not just wholly its own, but refreshing and welcome in an overall fairly disappointing summer movie season.
There are, of course, a whole host of jokes regarding the titular character’s fourth-wall-breaking younger self and a number of particularly hilarious references to the animated kids show (one sequence in particular had me rolling in laughter; you’ll know it when you see it), but the thing most striking about Dora and the Lost City of Gold has much less to do with it being a live-action adaptation of a kid’s property that’s actually fun to watch for adults and much more to do with its heart. From the very opening credits of the film, a sequence which features the younger versions of Dora and her family (a.k.a. the ones from the animated show), Dora expounds an utter sincereity and acute strength in believing in the powers of friendship and positivity, embracing those facets of its titular character in ways that a cartoon children’s show might not have otherwise been able to communicate to adult viewers. I was surprised as my leg started bouncing up and down to the re-mastered beat of the original show’s theme song, entirely caught by surprise as the opening minutes of the film played out and I found myself actually enjoying my experience, eager to see Dora herself interact with her high school classmates and smiling at the fish-out-of-water scenario that lent the character to some truly chuckle-worthy exchanges and scenarios.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Isabela Moner, who imbues Dora with such a bubbly, happy-go-lucky personality that you can’t help but like her and hope things go well for her. Insufferable as she may be to her grown-up cousin Diego, and as awkwardly as she presents herself to the other children at her school, her child-like wonder and eagerness to learn and show off her knowledge of everything her professor parents taught her give her a sincere charm that one can’t help but be affected by. It’s like watching Paddington for the first time, but all that heart is packed up inside one person, and while that can be a lot to handle, you just want to scoop it all up in your arms anyway. Wahlberg, who plays older Diego, also helps sell this element of the film, having become jaded and cynical since moving to the big city when he and Dora were young children, unprepared for just how little Dora has changed over the years. His performance and character aren’t as essential to the film on a narrative level as I would have liked, but as a familiar character for the kids to recognize who’s along for the ride, he lends some thematic heft to the overall proceeding, and I enjoyed watching him interact with the various characters and jungle mishaps the team has to deal with.
Speaking of the team, the supporting performances are quite good as well. Coombe doesn’t have as much to do as most of the rest of the cast, but he makes the most of what screen-time he does have as a good support for the mains story to go along, and Madeleine Madden’s journey from a social antagonist for Dora to a sincere friend who values Dora’s company and advice is played with enough nuance that (despite having some of the most stilted dialogue in the film) she manages to make us want more of her and Dora teaming up as a female team to go conquer the academic world. (And also, I know this gets said a lot, but Michael Peña really should not be as underrated of an actor as he is. Each time he’s on screen, the movie has some of its best moments).
The film also gets surprisingly ambitious with its narrative, covering a very large amount of adventure territory for being just over an hour and a half. This comes with the trade-off of having to sacrifice some of the better pacing the movie could have had if it chose to stick around in any one place that wasn’t the jungle for more than a few minutes at a time, but given the film’s target demographic, you can forgive it for being eager to give the kids something to look at, lest they get bored waiting for that something. Still, it would have been nice to spend a little more time with Dora figuring out high school before the real adventure kicks off, regardless of whether that made the movie slower or not.
Obviously, not everything is perfect about Dora and the Lost City of Gold, and given its family-friendly, mostly for kids to discover the character nature, some of the more technical elements are left un-curated for adventure filmmaking, such as the editing and the lack of a distinct style in James Bobin’s direction. It’s not so much that any of it is a true detriment given the film’s target demographic, but it would have been nice to see the movie go for something more than just a “point-and-shoot” style in its camerawork. As well, it comes with the territory I suppose, but some of the visual effects work doesn’t jive as well with its live-action environment as it probably should, and since it’s a kids film, the movies doesn’t really have time to try and get into the nuances of Mexican iconography or artifact-hunting or cultural meaning of various group dynamics or plot points it features. As well, some of the more classic characters from the original show, like Swiper, just aren’t in the movie very much, so if you were looking forward to seeing him, I’d temper your expectations. Other than those things though (and some plot things that never get brought up despite how important they might be for the main character to know), Dora and the Lost City of Gold manages to finish up its story largely unscathed by things that would typically sink a movie like this into the ground.
I’m as surprised as you are, folks. Dora and the Lost City of Gold genuinely rose through the ranks and its own terrible trailers to become one of the better movies of the summer and one of the biggest surprises of the entire year. It’s not very often that I get to be wrong about a movie I was looking forward to to such an enormous degree, but I will eat my words if they’re served to me, and Dora brought them out on a silver platter. Of course, it’s not a perfect film by any stretch, and there are a number of things that could have been improved here and there, but it is a sincere, heartfelt adventure with loads of charm and fun to be had, and if the studio wanted to give us a sequel somewhere down the line, I’d be more than okay with that.
I’m giving “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” a 7.3/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.