Movie review: Dora and the Lost City of Gold

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Attempting to nimbly hop like a gazelle on steroids from one medium to another does not always work for every pop culture property.

What works delightfully in one may fall to the ground with a dull thud or smashing roar in another, with the essence of what made the character or storyline (or both) work in its original medium not translating in a way that retains the very things that made fans fall in love with it in the first place.

It’s not something that Dora and the Lost City of Gold, the live-adaptation of Nickolodeon’s much-loved Dora the Explorer cartoon series has to worry about.

With barely a backward glance, and nary an uncertain step along the way, Dora and the Lost City of Gold romps from its original animated home to its live action setting, having a lot of fun and dispensing some discreetly-inserted messaging along the way.

It is a supreme delight, from the moment we meet a breathlessly-excitable six-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda/played as a sixteen-year-old by Isabela Moner) pretending she’s on some grand adventure with her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton / played as an adult by Jeff Wahlberg) right through to the time jump when we meet an older Dora apparently YouTubing her way through the jungle.

In these two scenes, which sit neatly cheek-by-jowl at the start of the film, we are introduced to the earnest excitability of Dora, which is celebrated as a delightful thing in itself, but which also fuels City of Gold‘s propensity to gently and affectionate parody her.

It’s a tough ask, to both pay homage to and have a little fun with a beloved character but the movie manages this in a way that gives adults plenty of knowing in-laughs and kids the sheer exhilaration of watching a child their age more than hold her own against kidnappers, fellow high school kids and some big life twists-and-turns.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

A thoroughly beguiling mix of Scooby-Doo, Indiana Jones, High School Musical and Lara Croft Tomb Raider, Dora and the Lost City of Gold ticks a ridiculous number of pleasing boxes on its heady gallop from the Peruvian jungles, where Dora lives with her parents, professors Cole and Elena Márquez (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria respectively), to L.A. and back again, grabbing and re-purposing all kinds of tropes with the enthusiastic alacrity of the newly-converted.

It’s not simply that it approaches its storytelling with an effervescent glee that draws you in so completely that not liking the film feels well nigh impossible, but that it does it so effectively at every turn.

Quite simply, it doesn’t put a foot wrong (not even when there are orange poison frogs leaping every which way).

It effortlessly takes its animated characters from Nickolodeon’s vivaciously bright and optimistically cartoon setting into a live action home while also succeeding in aging Dora without robbing her of the very qualities that made, and make her, such an inexhaustible delight.

The trick here is that other characters, who all end up adoring Dora by the end of proceedings (save for the bad guy) – the message here, which is not slathered on with a trowel, is that friendships and family matter and make us stronger and better, no matter the circumstances; it may sound twee but it works because it subtly interwoven into the story – are allowed to gently mock, in the sweetest of ways, some of Dora’s more dorky qualities.

It’s a risky move in one sense since one dialogue misstep or narrative misjudgment and they would’ve come across as mean and unlikable and portrayed Dora as an object of pity rather than a gorgeously upbeat, enthusiastic character who, for the most part, stays true to who she is, even when she is well aware it is drawing ridicule to her.

But the tension between lovability and and kindhearted needling stays balanced and true throughout, meaning that teenagers and fellow high school students Dora, Diego, uptight school president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and nerdy, game-playing object of bullying Randy (Nicholas Coombe), all of whom end up together after they’re kidnapped by treasure seeking antagonists while they’re a school trip to a museum, end up a a tight unit, supporting and caring for each other, even as the three non-Dora members struggle with how un-cool the titular character is.

Of course, their criticisms of Dora eventually even give way to a tight, affirming bond with her, but not before allowing Dora and the Lost City of Gold to have its creative cake and eat it too, allowing it to be both a loving evocation of the cartoon series and gently-parodying, live-action version of it.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

It is the very best of both worlds, and James Bobin, working to a screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson, who brings a delightfully British self-deprecating flavour and sense of the ridiculous to the movie, makes the absolute most of it, ensuring Dora and the Lost City of Gold manages to give us a rollicking good adventure, heartfelt moments, wisecracking lines by the vine full and an affirmation that being yourself is the very best thing you can be, naysayers be damned (in the most kid and YA-friendly way possible, of course).

Why all those disparate elements work so well is that the film takes its time establishing who the characters are, particularly Dora, and how their world fits together, both the Peruvian and urban jungles, so that when the search for the missing Incan city of Parapata begins in earnest, we feel like we’re on an adventure with good friends and people we actually care about.

Injecting that level of emotional resonance early on means that when some truly loopy, quirky elements creep in, it all feels perfectly in keeping with what we know of the characters.

Of course, the film has a headstart with the near-universal likability of Dora the Explorer, here just good old anything-but-plain Dora, but it uses that connection well so that when our eager beaver explorer romps through the jungle early on, clearly streaming to an eager audience (or is she? Early on it’s suggested that Dora habit of breaking the fourth wall might be to imaginary characters only) and, spying an orange poison frog, asks the watching audience “Can you spell severe neuro-toxicity?”, we both laugh at the silliness of it all while adoring how excitably enthusiastic Dora is.

So exuberantly does the film bounce from gentle parody to earnest evocation, in the setting of the kind of escapist adventure that cinema and brilliantly-good CGI was made for, that you are swept along at every point on a wave of optimistic, humour-laced goodwill that keeps going right through the credits where things get winningly, danceably musical.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is feel-good triumph, re-inventing one of Nickolodeon’s most-loved characters for a more modern knowing age while retaining the innocent joyfulness that made, and makes, her cartoon adventures such a giddy delight – the animation get a visual nod in the film too; best to leave that as a surprise but suffice to say, it involves hallucinogenic spores and some very mild, playful nods to Alien (let the mind boggle!) – while serving up a kid and adult-friendly romping adventure that reminds us all how very good it is to be ourselves, to stick to what matters to us and to do it, every step of the way, with people you love around you.

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