Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 6, 2019)
Back in 2000, Nickelodeon launched Dora the Explorer. An educational animated TV series, it focused on a young girl who goes on adventures and learns about a variety of topics along the way.
19 years after the series’ debut, the character leaps to the big screen via 2019’s live-action tale Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Six-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda) lives in the South American jungle with her archaeologist parents Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria).
Dora loves this life, but things change years later when Cole and Elena want to pursue the legendary Incan “city of gold” known as Parapata. Now 16, Dora (Isabela Moner) feels eager to accompany them, but they decide she needs to spend some time in the real world with kids her own age.
As such, Dora travels to Los Angeles, where she enters high school with her same-age cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). Though close pals when he lived in the jungle as a little kid, Diego now seems embarrassed by his naïve, earnest cousin.
Perpetually perky and chipper, Dora struggles to adjust to her new setting, but matters shift when she goes on a class field trip to a museum. On a search for ancient items, she, Diego, and peers Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) find themselves kidnapped by parties who want to locate the treasure in Parapata for themselves.
Despite the shift from LA to the jungle, Dora remains unflappable. She and her schoolmates work to stay alive and get home in the face of many dangers.
To refer to myself as too old for Dora would be an understatement. I was 33 when the show debuted, and I don’t believe I’d seen a moment of the series.
I can’t claim that Lost City initially enticed me, though it did perplex me. Even with my low level of knowledge, I was pretty sure the TV Dora was a little girl, not a teenager.
Why did Lost City make such a major character change? I suspect this occurred to allow the movie to reach a broader audience, as it seems likely that a film about an adventurous six-year-old would feel too ridiculous for the summer blockbuster crowd.
Lost City gives us hints of TV Dora, though. Of course, the scenes from 10 years earlier mimic the animated series to some degree, and the other sequences tip the hat to those elements as well.
Dora herself doesn’t change a lot from her presumed six-year-old self, but by some miracle, Moner pulls off the part. Dora should be a ridiculous character: a 16-year-old girl who talks to her backpack, breaks into song at the drop of a hat and is always prepared for any adventurous eventuality.
Moner manages to make Dora seem shockingly real. Well, perhaps “real” isn’t the correct term, as too much of the role embraces fantasy, but Moner grounds Dora and lets us accept the character’s eccentricities.
Moner also allows us to laugh at Dora’s “fish out of water” side, but we never chortle at Dora in a mocking way. No matter how absurd the character’s traits may seem, Moner portrays the part in such a charming, earnest manner that we buy into the conceits.
Really, Moner acts as the glue that holds together the whole enterprise, and the messy Lost City needs her. Essentially an Indiana Jones movie for kids, Lost City lacks the excitement and conviction it needs to truly succeed.
Part of the issue stems from the filmmakers’ inconsistent approach to self-reflective comedy. At times, Lost City makes fun of the animated series’ tropes – such as when Dora looks directly into the camera and asks the viewer if they can say a particular word – but it does this in an erratic way.
Lost City wants to spoof the TV series but gain status as a big-screen adventure as well, and the mix doesn’t work. I think a film that kept Dora firmly in the jungle with her parents or one that focused on her adjustment to life as an American teen would seem more satisfying, as this movie’s approach doesn’t serve either side especially well.
Make no mistake, though: Lost City devotes most of its energy to the explorer side of the tale. Granted, the inclusion of Diego, Sammy and Randy allows the story to indulge in teen dynamics as well – mainly due to romantic interest exhibited by some of the characters – but it largely concentrates on the thrills and excitement.
The attempted thrills and excitement, I should say, as Lost City never manages a whole lot of spark in that realm. This seems like another issue related to the movie’s desire to entertain the core very young Dora audience while it brings in older viewers as well.
Because Lost City wants adults and teens, it comes packed with action. Because Lost City wants to please that base crowd of little kids, it needs to keep the threats to Dora and company less than intimidating.
This means that when Dora and the others find themselves in danger, the viewer doesn’t really feel any sense of peril. Firmly “PG”, the adventure scenes lack impact and feel neutered to avoid a small child alienating “PG-13”.
At its worst, Lost City remains perfectly watchable, and I’ll admit it fares much better for an adult audience than one would expect. As I implied earlier, I anticipated a Dora movie would offer nothing for viewers over the age of 8, so the fact that the film manages to become a decent cinematic experience for me acts as a pretty solid achievement.
Still, I can’t find a lot to recommend here, at least not for a general audience – and I’m not so sure how well Lost City works for the little kids who won’t get a lot of the jokes. The film tries to please too many potential viewers and it suffers as a result.
Footnote: a quick animated tag appears at the end of the closing credits.