Nickelodeon’s teenage live-action reboot of the beloved children’s show brings a strong central performance and oodles of adventure.
For many a millennial, Dora and the Lost City of Gold represents the unstoppable march of time. Based on the popular Nick Jr. series, Dora the Explorer (which started in 2000), this is one of the first movies that banks on Gen Z nostalgia. Granted, the series is still running, but with the movie’s targeted audience skewing a little higher than the shows preschool fanbase, it will need to be good enough to appeal to kids who are too young to feel nostalgic as well as parents who were too old to enjoy the series. Fortunately, James Bobin (Alice Through the Looking Glass) delivers an adventure flick with enough laughs, excitement, and heart to entertain people who haven’t even heard of the pint-size explorer.
As the daughter of archeologists, 16-year-old Dora (Isabela Moner, Instant Family) feels at home in the jungles of Peru, helping her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) search for the lost Incan city of Parapata. However, when her parents send her to live in “the city” (it’s never stated, but it’s LA) to socialize with kids her own age, she finds herself out of her comfort zone. Her sunny disposition and odd behavior make her a social pariah in her high school, much to the chagrin of her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, Future World).
On a field trip to the natural history museum, Dora is kidnapped by mercenaries who want to use her to track her parents, who are close to finding Parapata. The mercenaries also inadvertently kidnap Diego, as well as their classmates Sammy (Madeleine Madden, Picnic at Hanging Rock) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe, Midnight Sun). The teens are rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), a professor and friend of Dora’s parents. The group will have to brave the jungle, escape dangerous ruins, and outwit a talking fox named Swiper (Benicio Del Toro, Avengers: Infinity War) if they want to find Dora’s parents and the lost city.
The first act of Dora takes a page from the playbook for the Brady Bunch movies of the 90s by transplanting Dora, who acts as she does in the show, into a more realistic setting. Her behavior ranges from the naive (introducing herself to everyone), to the annoying (she sings a song about mundane tasks), to the truly bizarre (she says things like “can you say delicioso?” to nobody, in a nod to Dora speaking to the audience in the show).
Dora’s maturation doesn’t come at the cost of her innocence; it comes from her forming bonds with peers who accept her for who she is.
Much of the humor comes from Dora’s encounters with “normal” people and the tension that creates. It can be a little repetitive, but it works due to Moner’s fantastic performance. This role could have easily been done tongue-in-cheek, but Moner acts like she’s not in on the joke. Everything about Dora is completely sincere, and it works. She has an infectious charm that makes her fun to watch and awkward around her peers. She never becomes annoying, and she even has moments of depth and a little self-awareness.
What hurts the dynamic between Dora and “the real world” is the supporting cast; the movie would have worked great if the rest of the cast played it straight against Dora’s weirdness, but the other explorers feel just as archetypal. Sammy is the teacher’s pet who is threatened by Dora’s intelligence, Randy is the nerdy outcast goofball, and Alejandro is the comically inept adult that often shows up in kid’s movies. As such, the acting can feel a little one-note: Madden is catty, Derbez is goofy, and Coombe makes awkward pop culture references. Out of the main cast, only Wahlberg feels like a real person. The stereotyped acting isn’t too bad and is most likely the result of direction rather than the actors, but it does make the film feel less mature than it otherwise would.
Once Dora returns to the jungle, the film switches from Brady Movie-style parody to Indiana Jones for kids. Dora features a lot of staples of swashbuckling adventure flicks: dense jungles, dangerous flora and fauna, quicksand, greedy tomb raiders, and ruins with elaborate traps that work flawlessly despite being centuries old. It’s obvious that the filmmakers have a lot of love for these types of movies, and although none of the set pieces are terribly original, they’re still a lot of fun.
While there’s not a big sense of danger to the traps (this is a Nickelodeon flick, after all), they are still thrilling, and escaping them requires the explorers to use their mind as well as their muscle, in keeping with the spirit of the TV show. The production design is also fantastic, with Incan temples filled with intricate carvings, ornate statues, and even some creepy warnings to intruders.
Of course, the biggest difference between Dora and the adventure movies that inspired it is the fact that this is about a mostly Latinx group exploring the history of a Latin American country. While the movie doesn’t lean heavily into Latinx culture, with Dora being vaguely Hispanic instead of being of a specific heritage, it does contain nods to Incan culture. Dora speaks Quechan (an indigenous language of Peru), and they reference the Incan recording system quipu, which uses knots to record data (although they treat it like an alphabet, which it was not).
The movie also has a few criticisms of colonialism, both symbolically (the group explores a European built opera house that has been reclaimed by the land) and literally (the group talks about how Europeans and Americans have robbed Latin America). It’s not a scathing critique of Western imperialism, but it’s about as politically subversive as a Hollywood kids film will get.
I could say that what makes Dora and the Lost City of Gold refreshing is that it features a Latinx heroine in a genre dominated by white men. But while I think that this representation is great, what makes the film is Dora herself. While there is humor in her singing, optimism, and enthusiasm, it’s clear that these are good traits, traits that help her succeed where others might fail. Dora’s maturation doesn’t come at the cost of her innocence; it comes from her forming bonds with peers who accept her for who she is. Dora proves that you don’t have to be “hard” to be strong, and I think that makes it worth a watch.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold brings her Backpack into theaters Friday, August 9.