When I first told my wife there was going to be a live-action Dora the Explorer movie, she laughed. Heck, I said it with a snicker myself. Although my flippancy wasn’t so much “Can you believe this?” than it was an acknowledgment of yet another beloved franchise getting the nostalgia treatment. Nothing is off the table these days, and a live-action adventure film of a didactic preschool cartoon is the epitome of that notion. Little did I know I would end up laughing with the movie, not at it.
Nickelodeon Studios takes the cartoon and gives it an Indiana Jones premise where Dora has to trek through the Peruvian jungle to save her parents from mercenaries, while also tracking down the secret Incan city of Parapata. And it turns out the journey there is actually quite fun, regardless if you’re a Dora fan or not.
Early on showing Dora as an adventurous, wide-eyed 6-year-old playing in the jungles of Peru as her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) conduct their research as explorers, we soon flash-forward 10 years as Dora (Isabela Moner), with that exact same childlike innocence, is sent to Los Angeles to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), who was playmates and best friends with Dora in the jungle before he and his family left years earlier. Diego sees his time as a child with Dora as a mere product of his youth, now grown up trying to fit in with his high school class. He desperately wants to be cool, but Dora makes this very hard.
She has no clue what 16-year-olds act like. She has no reference. She’s the exact same as when she was 6, equipped with that same unjaded optimism that left Diego all those years ago. Dora gets made fun of for her naivety, but she never flinches. She’s so confident that she never thinks twice when it comes to being herself. Perhaps even more valuable of a lesson than those taught by the TV show itself.
On a field trip to a history museum, Dora, Diego, and two classmates, Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe), get kidnapped and sent to Peru by treasure hunters who think Dora can help them track down her parents, who’ve recently gone off the grid. Her parents aren’t treasure hunters, but explorers; uncovering secret treasure is their reward, rather than the treasure itself. Dora and her friends are soon rescued by Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), an explorer friend of Dora’s parents and the last person who heard from them before they disappeared. He accompanies the teenagers through the jungle as they try to outrun the mercenaries to locate her parents and Parapata.
The Lost City of Gold is aimed towards kids, while also being accessible to the new adults who grew up with the show in the early ’00s. As directed by James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, The Muppets) the jokes parody the impassioned educational traits of the show (“Can you say ‘severe neurotoxicity’?!”), yet deftly balances them out with more by-the-numbers slapstick for older viewers. The funniest bits comes from the fish-out-of-water premise during Dora’s time in high school.
As many genuine laughs the jokes get, the comedy is non-stop, sometimes to the detriment of the thrills. The humor undermines any suspense we’re given and we hardly ever feel like anything is truly at stake. I almost wish the movie had been adventure first, but that’s what happens in kids movies. Kids love long, drawn-out silliness.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold does enough right that it’s almost impossible to not come out of the theater satisfied. It accomplishes the minor miracle of being both loving homage and self-parody of what made the beloved Nickelodeon cartoon so beloved without insulting the audience – or the series. Though not poetic by any means, many millennials may find this live-action Dora helps validate a part of their cringey childhood interests as they begin to embark on a brand new world of nostalgia. Even where it falters, the movie remains confident in itself and what it intends to be – never thinking twice.