When this film started getting quite good reviews I suspected it was because everyone had expected it to be terrible and were inclined to be more positive once they discovered it wasn’t. I always had hope for this movie though. There were a couple of Funny or Die sketches a few years ago that had Modern Family’s Ariel Winter as a slightly older Dora in spoof movie trailers featuring violence and explosions and when the real trailer for this dropped it didn’t look a million miles away from that set up. Here was seventeen year old Isabela Moner as Dora, first mixing with regular teens then being kidnapped with some city kids, taken to the jungle and having to fight mercenaries and treasure hunters. It seemed like it could be fun, for those that had seen the original show as little kids and for the parents who had to suffer it with them.
Having now seen the film in its entirety, rather than just the promotional clips, it isn’t quite what I hoped for but it still has some charm. Is it a cathartic take down for all those forty somethings who had to watch a badly drawn, saccharine sweet, giant pistachio headed cartoon preschooler incessantly patronising their children by asking them questions even a non-cartoon monkey could answer (Which shape goes in the square hole?) or simply prompting them to repeat unfamiliar vocab, often in Español (Can you say Español?)? Is it that? No, it’s not. They have elected not to be too critical so that the film retains nostalgic value for those that once loved the show but it is aware of its own silliness and it is prepared to call the TV program out on some of its more cheesy traits. It is both knowing and affectionate then and these aspects mostly fight against one another to the point that it actually does neither with any sustained sophistication.
The film is a bit hit and miss then but, as suggested, it is not entirely bereft of things to recommend it. The idea of Dora’s simplistic, unquestioning, unfailingly positive outlook on life clashing with the expectations of normal (Hollywood normal) LA teenagers brings most of the gags and some of these land. Adolescent Dora going to a ‘come as your favourite star’ school dance dressed as The Sun is a little obvious but adolescent Dora singing a song about digging a poo hole when her self conscious peer just needs a place to discreetly take a dump in the jungle is actually pretty funny. There are some delightfully surreal moments too which interestingly are the sections that are most faithful to the original source material, in this case both celebrating and mocking it perfectly. The first is the opening sequence and the second, well you’ll know it when it comes.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is reminiscent of all kinds of things including Tomb Raider, Mean Girls, Spy Kids, Jumanji and the Wizards of Waverley Place Movie. In the end though, for all its satire and cinematic savvy, it stays true to the essence of Dora the Explorer and I have to put my cynicism aside and admit that this was probably the right way for them to go.
The Ripley Factor:
I guess I can’t fault this film for its female characters. While a little silly, the protagonist is never stupid and her fortitude is kind of commendable. I mean she takes a hell of a lot in her stride what with teenage teasing, parental rejection, quicksand, Aztec curses, unexplained magic and (despite having established at the start that the talking backpack and the singing map were all in her imagination) a very real anthropomorphic fox that still hasn’t got the message about not swiping.
Isabela Moner is, I have to say, brilliant. Her performance here is a long way from her equally strong turns in Instant Family and Sicario 2 and not since Amy Adams have we seen someone switch so easily between musicals, comedy and drama. It’s a generous comparison but it’s not unjustified. Moner has been slowly heading toward that one break out role and she did it, she did it.
Is this one for the kids?
To really get the most out of this film about an optimistic and undemanding youngster I think you need to be an optimistic and undemanding youngster. Anyone else may question a few of the narrative choices and expect more of the comedy. If the target audience of the TV show was six then I would say that they’ve only added about four years to this rather than the ten or so they were hoping for. As suggested though, there are worse ways to spend an hour and forty five minutes, even for Mum and Dad. Explore it for yourself if you want.