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Dora and the Lost City of Gold

On the surface, I’m probably the last critic to be reviewing a movie based on “Dora the Explorer”. My sister and I had aged well past the target demographic by the time the show premiered in 2000, and anything I know about it comes from Wikipedia and pop culture osmosis. That said, my interest in this one was keenly piqued by one Isabela Moner.

For those who don’t recall Instant Family, it was a sleeper hit from 2018 that made my year-end list. While hardly perfect, it was a legitimately funny and deeply heartfelt little flick. It was easily my favorite family film of the year, due in no small part to the dynamic, scene-stealing, star-making performance from Moner. So whatever she made next, I knew I’d be there for it.

Then the trailers for Dora came out, and it became perfectly clear that this was being made and marketed as an all-ages Indiana Jones, with a teenaged Latina girl as the lead. Derivative? Maybe. But since the Tomb Raider reboot flopped and Indiana Jones himself has overstayed his welcome, there is absolutely room in that lane. And if it leads to greater diversity in film, with greater attention (albeit sensationalized) toward ancient Mexican cultures that don’t typically get a lot of portrayal in film, I’m cool with that.

The film opens with Madelyn Miranda as a six-year-old Dora, going on wild imaginary adventures with her cousin (Diego, played in the prologue by Malachi Barton), her pet monkey (Boots, played by Danny Trejo, of all people), and her friendly talking inanimate objects. Basically, the movie parodies the original show by establishing that it was all just the daydream fantasies of this girl and her cousin. That was clever, and really kinda gutsy.

Anyway, Dora and Diego really are living in the jungle, Boots is really a pet monkey, and Dora’s parents are explorers looking for the lost city of Parapata. Basically, Dora and her parents have spent their lives searching for a lost Inca civilization said to possess more gold than the rest of the world combined.

They’re still at it ten years later, and we quickly find out that Dora (now played by Moner) never really outgrew her imaginary grade-school TV mindset. Only now, she’s maintaining a hyper-cheery kid-friendly persona while being chased by real-life animals, and the contrast is hilarious. On a similar note, Dora’s act hasn’t really changed in spite of how much she’s learned and grown, and that’s another really funny contrast. (“Can you say ‘neurotoxicity’?”) Yes, Dora is still breaking the fourth wall, primarily to address the audience of her vlog.

All of this goes nowhere. The vlog never comes up again. While a bit of a waste, this intro helps to establish Dora as an impossibly sunny girl, maintaining her bright demeanor almost in spite of everything going on around her. She’s more than a little naive, but she’s more than capable of looking after herself. Though of course it helps to have Boots and her parents nearby when her reach inevitably exceeds her grasp.

The first act starts in earnest when Dora’s parents (played by Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) finally figure out where Parapata is. But of course the journey is too dangerous for a headstrong girl who doesn’t even realize how much she doesn’t know. Thus — for the very first time — Dora is sent to a big city (Los Angeles, specifically) to attend a high school and meet kids her age. All the while, she’s under the grudging watch of Diego (now played by Jeff Wahlberg), who’s spent the past ten years growing up in the city.

So what we have here is a case of someone growing up in the actual jungle, thrust into the city (read: “concrete jungle”), thus comparing and contrasting the two. This is of course nothing new. (see also: Crocodile Dundee, Jungle 2 Jungle, the 1997 George of the Jungle adaptation, etc.) At the same time, we’ve got a character whose incessant optimism serves as a refreshing counterpoint against the apathy and bitterness of modern life. (see also: Paddington and its sequel.)

While these individual parts are nothing new, what ties them together effectively is Dora’s relationship with her cousin. Dora doesn’t care what anyone else thinks about her, we the audience have no reason to hope that such a sympathetic character will ever completely change her ways, and this whole high school thing is just a temporary situation anyway, so it wouldn’t make one bit of difference how badly Dora makes an ass of herself. Yet everything she does reflects on Diego, and for better or worse, he’ll have to live with the fallout long after Dora’s gone back home. And of course Dora loves Diego very much and wants to do right by him, even if he’s very clearly no longer the boy she played with as kids.

All of this ties back to the central theme of the movie: When it’s better to be alone, and when it’s better to have friends. It would be so easy for the movie to go all-in on the “friendship is magic” theme and say that it’s always better to be with company, but the film is thankfully more nuanced than that. Granted, it does lean more toward the “stronger together” side of things, but we still see plenty of times when certain characters need to be alone. I applaud the movie for taking that more balanced stance.

Alas, there’s one major problem with this whole “Dora in the city” angle: It’s gone by the end of the first act. This easily could’ve been a movie in itself, but it’s completely forgotten as soon as Dora and her friends (we’ll get to them in a minute) get kidnapped and dragged to Peru in search of Parapata and Dora’s missing parents. Thus the “fish out of water” subplot is reduced to an inconsequential plot detour because all the real action is going on back in Peru. The plot just needed to get Dora out of the way while her parents were getting lost, and that’s ultimately all that matters about this particular subplot.

Well, that and introducing the supporting cast. Let’s talk about them.

First up, Diego. His rapport with Dora is solid on paper, and it really is sweet how the two characters push each other to grow. It also helps that while Diego’s wilderness survival skills are rusty, they’re certainly not gone, and he makes himself useful on quite a few occasions.

That said, I was irked about how often Diego got lumped in with the other supporting characters. As if Diego was some random kid that Dora just met and not her freaking blood relative. Then again, precisely because Jeff Wahlberg has all the range and charisma of a wooden plank, I guess it makes sense that he’d be so forgettable and yet effective as a sounding board for Dora. Moner may be destined for the A-list, but I don’t see Wahlberg getting there anytime soon.

Next up is Randy, played by Nicholas Coombe. I hated this kid. A wretchedly unfunny comic relief and an outdated geek stereotype to boot. He’s whiny, he’s shallow, he’s shrill, his attempts at pop culture humor weren’t the least bit funny, and every line out of his mouth made me wish for a roll of duct tape.

But then there’s Sammy. Whoo boy.

Played by Madeleine Madden, Sammy is quickly established as an uber-competitive overachiever with a monumental chip on her shoulder. The kind of teenager for whom community service is done solely to boost her college application, with little if any regard for making an actual difference. The kind of honor roll psychopath who ruthlessly bullies anyone who might be smarter than her. The kind of radical feminist who’s really only interested in using gender equality as a club to beat down her male classmates.

Where the film is concerned, Sammy is yet another case study in how it’s sometimes better to be alone and sometimes it’s better to have friends. Where I’m concerned, Sammy is a case study in how it’s possible to be 100 percent right and still be an insufferable asshole.

On the one hand, Madden is probably the strongest member of the supporting cast, with regards to making the most out of weak material. Second only to Moner (and that’s a distant, distant second) she’s got more charisma and range than any of the other teens in the cast. Plus, while it takes Sammy more than half the film to really warm up, her development arc is sweetly played when it finally gets rolling.

On the other hand, Sammy has a romance arc with Diego that’s entirely useless and not the least bit credible. Though again, it doesn’t help that Wahlberg has no screen presence and thus no chemistry with Madden. But what really sinks Sammy for me is that she contributes nothing to the plot. Not a single thing. Of course Dora and Diego are perfectly capable of making their way through the jungle, and even Randy gets to contribute his knowledge of astronomy (plus his contrived-as-all-fuck ability to hold his breath for a long time).

But Sammy? The film spends so much time building her up as this know-it-all who aces every class and wins every competition, and precisely none of that is in any way useful out in the jungle. She contributes absolutely nothing that nobody else can say or do. So instead she just whines incessantly and takes up space until she finally learns her lesson. FAIL.

On the subject of the supporting cast, I suppose I should mention Alejandro, played by exec producer Eugenio Derbez. To put this as briefly as I can, Alejandro is a colleague of Dora’s parents, basically serving as a kind of guide to help the kids get away from danger and on the track to finding Dora’s parents. Though he comes off as kind of a bumbling dolt, it’s actually kind of endearing and comical to see an adult who’s no more mature or capable than the kids surrounding him. Alejandro also serves as a solid demonstration of Dora’s naivete, as he dropped in out of nowhere and she trusts him blindly.

If it sounds like I’m telegraphing a plot point there, I assure you that the film itself telegraphs it WAAAY louder.

But of all the nits I’ve been picking so far, none of them are anywhere near as consequential as our villains. The only one that’s even remotely memorable is the one played by Temuera Morrison. I don’t know the character’s name, and I honestly don’t care. If it wasn’t for Morrison’s smoldering screen presence, this character would be a nameless thug with barely any screen time or impact on the plot.

Yet even he comes out looking better than Swiper.

I don’t want to say that Swiper’s inclusion here doesn’t “make sense”, since he’s a part of the source material and the bar for disbelief has been set pretty fucking high in this globetrotting historical fantasy adventure. But that’s just it: This is a movie very clearly made in the vein of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, The Adventures of Tintin, the ’90s Mummy remake, The Goonies, and so on. Of course the movie is going to feature elaborate puzzles and implausible deathtraps. Magic of some kind would be feasible, provided it’s compatible with the mythology. Even an animal sidekick of Boots’ intelligence would be at home within the genre. (see also: Abu from Aladdin, Tintin’s dog Snowy, Barbossa’s monkey Jack, and so on.)

This, on the other hand, is an anthropomorphic kleptomaniac fox inexplicably voiced by Benicio Del Toro. He’s clearly shown to be working with the villainous mercenaries for no apparent reason whatsoever. As one character points out, Swiper even wears a totally useless mask, if only to complete the picture of a stereotype cartoon thief. There is not a single solitary goddamn thing about this character that even remotely fits with the rest of the film.

The good news is that otherwise, director James Bobin (and his recurring collaborator, writer/producer Nicholas Stoller) very clearly knows exactly what movie he’s making. For all my gripes about the comic relief, the filmmakers never lose sight of what we really came here to see, and all the extraneous bullshit (of which there is admittedly a metric ton) is never allowed to fully conceal it. Thus the central themes of friendship and family are developed in clever and sincerely heartfelt ways, while the adventure genre thrills are nicely satisfying for all ages.

Most importantly of all, in case I haven’t already made it clear, Isabela Moner is on fire here. “Charisma” doesn’t even begin to describe it, she’s positively magnetic from start to finish. In the character’s unyielding optimism, her rock-solid backbone, and her naive vulnerability, Moner makes absolutely every moment shine.

…With some exceptions.

You see, Dora sings. Because of course she does, it’s another holdover from the source material. Thus Dora responds to pretty much everything with a song. If she’s happy, if she’s sad, if she’s scared, if she’s having trouble remembering something, her first solution is always “Let’s sing a song about it!” While it’s consistently lampshaded by the other characters, that doesn’t make it any less annoying. I could point to any number of examples, but the indisputable nadir comes when Dora sings about digging a cathole. Seriously, Dora literally sings a happy upbeat song about poop. That happens.

On the other hand, the jokes typically work more often than they don’t. It certainly helps that through pretty much the entire film, our characters are surrounded by an extremely dangerous rainforest filled with plants and insects that don’t want them there. Thus the humor contrasts quite nicely against the terrible circumstances of the plot. Probably my favorite example is the constant stream of fart jokes made while our characters are stepping through quicksand. Major bonus points for making a series of fart jokes legitimately clever and funny — you don’t see that very often.

Another great case in point is in Dora’s parents. Yes, Michael Pena’s cringeworthy a capella rave music should’ve been kept to the trailer without ever getting stretched out to feature length. On the other hand, this kind of “dad humor” has been so thoroughly established as Pena’s forte that even when his jokes bomb, it still comes off as endearing. (Same for Moner, come to think of it.) As for Eva Longoria, what do I really have to say? All she has to do is show up and she perfectly nails the role of Dora’s mom.

While Dora and the Lost City of Gold has many glaring flaws, I still had a great time with it. The whole movie is random without feeling careless, and self-referential without ever condescending. The humor, adventure fantasy, and heart of the film are all nicely satisfying in a way that will appeal to all ages. And even if the supporting cast is less than stellar, Isabela Moner’s lead performance is more than strong enough to keep everything watchable.

Definitely give this one a look.

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