Movie Review: “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”

The animated “Dora the Explorer” television series began after I was too old to be watching such a show.  That said, as a good consumer of media, I am well aware of the show and the general structure of an episode.  Although such knowledge makes some of the jokes in the new, live action, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” easier to understand, it is by no means necessary.

Directed by James Bobin with a screenplay from Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson (based on a story from Tom Wheeler and Stoller), Isabela Moner takes on the role of Dora, now a teenager, and forced to adjust to life in the city after her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) go off to search for a lost Incan city.  Eventually Dora and her new friends find themselves back in the jungle, tracking down her parents, and having an adventure of their own.

Moner, who was wonderful in last year’s “Instant Family,” is unquestionably the best reason to watch this take on the character.  The movie forces her to walk a fine line between being a three-dimensional human and a cartoon, and she absolutely nails it.  The actress is able to interact with a CG monkey and deliver every over-the-top, super ebullient line with the same ease that she offers up the more heartfelt, serious, moments.  It is pitch perfect and she is a joy to watch.

The rest of the movie, however, does not compare with Moner’s performance.  Dora’s adventure in the jungle with her classmates—Randy (Nicholas Coombe); Sammy (Madeleine Madden); and her cousin, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg)—is amusing in fits and spurts, but never consistently and certainly not constantly.  It is, in fact, the barest outlines of an adventure.  As the group, along with Eugenio Derbez’s Alejandro, with whom they meet up upon their arrival, travels deeper and deeper into the unknown, the audience witnesses a series of easily overcome obstacles.  At times it feels like a riff on “The Goonies” or an “Indiana Jones” film, with some of the puzzles seeming right out of either of the two (or both).

Watching the journey, one can almost see the moments that never made it from the screenplay to the finished version of the movie – things like an explanation of the indigenous group trying to keep the city secret.  Almost certainly there is no explanation of how Swiper the Fox (voiced by Benicio del Toro) can exist in this world, but that sort of moment actually works.

This last is one of the most interesting aspects of the film – while Moner’s Dora perfectly straddles the line between the real and the imaginary, the rest of the movie has trouble on both sides, although it does do better tilting towards the latter.  So, a fox with a mask who is helping the bad guys is far more successful than the witless, generic, villains themselves.  An animated bit caused by exposure to a hallucinogen is amusing, but more so far for those who haven’t seen such a sequence on multiple occasions already this year.

Relatively undemanding (and younger) audiences will, no doubt, find a whole lot to like in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” while those looking for something stronger will, in general, be disappointed.  That said, no one watching the movie will think Isabela Moner’s performance anything less than amazing.  The actress turns on a dime from boundless exuberance to deeply, seriously, emotional, and makes it work.  Her take on the character shows just how it is that the show could work as a live action franchise.

Personally, I’d rather rewatch “The Goonies” than see “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” again, but that may be because while I was too old for “Dora the Explorer,” “Goonies” came along at the exact right moment.

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photo credit:  Paramount Pictures

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