Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD
Rated PG, 102 minutes
Directed by: James Bobin
It’s quite the feat to make an engaging live action film out of a children’s animated series starring a fourth-wall breaking, precociously perky young explorer, her pet monkey, and talking backpack and map, all of whom are in constant conflict with a sly fox with a penchant for stealing. But director James Bobin, along with screenwriters Nicolas Stoller and Matthew Robinson, have done just that by taking the popular children’s program DORA THE EXPLORER and giving it a new spin in DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD. Capturing the Latinx character’s plucky spirit and soulful heart with an adult sense of irreverence, hilarity and humanity, it’s a film for every parent who’s ever been tasked to watch the show with their kids as much as it is for the kids who’ve grown up learning from the eponymous character’s wild adventures.
Sixteen-year-old Dora (Isabela Moner) lives in the rainforest, spending her idyllic days learning about nature and chronicling all her crazy quests on her GoPro camera. Just like her professor parents Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria), she’s always had a love for archeology and exploration – specifically an obsession to find “Parapata,” the Incan lost city of gold. It’s been a seductive force in her thirst for discovery. As her mom and dad prepare to embark on their most dangerous expedition yet, they deliver Dora a disheartening dispatch: she’s going to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff “nephew of Mark and Donnie” Wahlberg) in Hollywood and attend public high school while they’re in Peru scouting a tip on Parapata.
Dora’s overly friendly, bubbly nature, of course, comes as a shock to Diego – who’s attempting to navigate high school unnoticed – and most of their classmates. All of her wisdom and wit, all the independence, curiosity and intrepid spirit that made her an asset in the wild make her the school’s newest pariah. She causes a pile-up at security. She embarrasses herself at a school dance. And, even worse, she unwittingly makes friends with the school’s outcasts, abrasive know-it-all Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe).
As Dora’s mission to acclimate into society intensifies, her parents’ journey also escalates, causing them to lose communication with her. She feels adrift – at least until a band of mercenaries (a word she repeats in the cheeriest tone ever said) kidnaps her, Diego, Sammy and Randy, taking them to Peru and forcing them to reveal all they know about Parapata. They befriend Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), who not only sets them free, but also escorts the teens on their search for Dora’s missing parents.
Bobin, Stoller and Robinson have given a younger generation their new aspirational heroine. They find a wealth of aspects to explore with the character and her surroundings. Thematically, they tie together a sense of family (blood related and the friends made along the way) and cultural insight, which is crucial to the way Dora solves the “jungle puzzles” presented to the group. The fish-out-of-water scenarios she’s placed in are clever and perfectly suit her eccentricities. They’re also relatable and inspiring for pint-sized moviegoers, who may be eager to learn from her example. She might’ve just single-handedly revived an old trend of youngsters wielding yo-yos. The lessons imbued from her struggles are heartening. She remains true to her herself without compromising an ounce of her identity, agency or essence.
While there are two scatological jokes too many (the other two that are sung are undoubtedly perfect), Bobin makes the time for gags to resonate. Peña does an extended bit on what rave songs sound like and Derbez dips into his physical comedy background. Self-aware and self-reflexive humor is peppered throughout, providing subtle (and not-so-subtle) gags for those familiar with the established property. The “Silent Bob” style bit involving Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo) garners lots of laughs, as does the sequence where Dora, Diego and Alejandro experience an animated acid-like trip on the pollen poofed from exotic jungle flora. Swiper (voiced by Benicio Del Toro) also swipes a few good lines. Action-driven set pieces – like the aqueduct puzzle, the tilting hallway and the quicksand sequence – are coherently shot and assembled. They also point back to the notion of teamwork being the most meaningful tool in solving problems.
None of this would be sold and packaged nearly as well without the performance by its leading lady Moner. She continually modulates, broadens and brightens the comedic nuances of Dora’s social awkwardness. With restraint, she keeps it from dipping too much into a predictable parody. Her wide-eyed optimism married with her heartfelt sincerity is a brilliant coupling. The audience doesn’t have to look hard to find the real treasure here.
DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD opens on August 9.