Dora The Explorer was without question one of the most recognizable children’s shows of the 2000s. However, that popularity belies it’s absurdity. While I only caught glimpses of what the show was about (the gist is that is follows the adventures of a Latin toddler as she goes on the hunt for various artifacts), I still have questions all these years later. Is it unfair to examine the logic of a children’s show? Yes. Am I going to do it anyway? Yes.
For starters, where was this girl’s parents? When does she eat? Is that backpack full of ramen and fruit snacks? Why does she put her life in the hands of the viewer, who must repeat some Spanish word in order for her to save herself which she clearly can already do? While we’re on the subject, who decided a 5-year-old was capable of giving Spanish lessons? I don’t care how many words you know, I don’t have to listen to you! I want my lessons from an adult.
It appears director James Bobin sees some of the fun in these unanswered questions, given his goofy take on the material. Which brings us to Dora and the Lost City of Gold, a live action adaptation with a few choice updates. Here, Dora is only briefly seen as a young girl before transitioning the character into a teenager, played by an astonishingly committed Isabela Moner. Instead of presenting a traditional Dora tale that’s reminiscent of the TV show, the film puts the character in the age-old “fish out of water” scenario, where Dora is sent by her parents, Elena and Cole (Eva Longoria, Michael Peña) to live a normal life with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his parents. So she must say goodbye to the jungle and assimilate to urban life.
It’s this part of the film that appears to be the weakest. After a self-aware opening that features the filmmakers displaying affectionate parody of the show – including the inanity of Dora’s 4th wall breaking – the film heads into the high school comedy portion of the story, to middling results. We get the idea – Dora is strange and eccentric due to her isolated upbringing in the jungle, making her a prime target for ridicule among her peers. The problem is Dora’s dilemma in this setting doesn’t reach a meaningful climax. It mostly resolves itself in Dora sustaining her earnestness in the face of ridicule, which is a valuable ideal. But so little time is spent in this section that there’s no room for critique on the superficiality of this high school setting, which is a flaw if it’s the only palpable form of adversity your title character experiences.
Before we get settled in to this new setting, Dora and Diego are kidnapped while on a class field trip, along with two would-be love interests. In their attempts to escape, they run into a strange man named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez). He’s on the hunt for a lost treasure as well as Dora’s parents, whom he hopes can lead him to the destination of said treasure. No matter what language you speak, all you need is a pair of eyes to know where this character is headed. As for where the rest of the plot is headed, it isn’t anything interesting or unexpected.
The film isn’t particularly outstanding, but where it exceeds is it’s strong cast and an earnest energy which matches the protagonist. I imagine families won’t care much about the plot or the villains, but will appreciate the oddball humor and Moner’s zany turn as Dora. In many ways, this film is a spiritual successor to another adaptation of a television classic – George of the Jungle (1997). That film also featured a nearly oblivious weirdo as it’s hero, winning on charm and compassion while the film itself mocked the most ridiculous aspects of the source material. Dora and the Lost City of Gold isn’t as fun, but appropriately aims low in terms of stakes and narrative substance. It isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel for family films; it only strives to be just as much of a momentary distraction as the source it is based on.
This means the film will hardly stay with you, but it’s fun while it lasts. The standouts here are of course Moner and Peña as they handle the heavy lifting of the comedy, with Moner in particular showing all the traits for an A-list leading lady going forward. As for where Dora goes from here, that’s still up in the air. It wouldn’t be the worst thing more adventures in this universe, preferably with some of the supporting players (including underutilized characters like Boots and Swiper) having more to do, along with a more arresting narrative. But given the success rate of children’s adaptations, adequate is still preferable to getting Smurfed.