When “Dora the Explorer” made her debut on Nickelodeon in 2000, she not only became the first animated Latina character in a leading role but also birthed what would become the longest-running American TV show that featured characters speaking Spanish. (The show is still running on Nickelodeon with new episodes).
Nineteen years later, Dora gets the live-action treatment in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” and despite an awkward first act, the film harkens back to the family-adventure genre that today’s parents can recall from their own childhoods.
Dora (Isabela Moner, “Instant Family”) and her parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) have lived in the jungles of South America for all of Dora’s life. The jungle is her home, her school and her playground, and like many young teenagers she runs through her life documenting everything with a GoPro strapped on, speaking to an invisible audience about the wonders of exploring the rain forest. For over a decade, in between homeschooling Dora and creating a family life in the jungle, her professor parents have been searching for the lost Incan city of Parapata and have just found the key to its location somewhere in the jungles of Peru.
Wanting to keep Dora safe while they set off on a months-long exploration (and also worried that perhaps she is a little socially inept, having never been around kids her own age), they send her to stay with her once-best friend, her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), and his parents in Los Angeles, with only one piece of advice: “Just be yourself.”
And she tries. But the dangers of living among deadly animals and insects is a piece of cake compared to dealing with other teenagers. Feeling more isolated than ever before, Dora keeps in touch with her parents via a two-way radio that they use to update their daughter with their latest coordinates whenever they can. Suddenly, after months of constant communication, her parents go radio silent, which doesn’t alarm Dora until she, Diego and two kids from school end up getting kidnapped by booty-hunting mercenaries who want to use Dora to track her parents and, ultimately, to lead them to Parapata’s long-lost treasure.
The entire first act of “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” plays as though screenwriters Nicholas Stoller (“Night School”) and Matthew Robinson (“Monster Trucks”) couldn’t decide what they wanted the film to be: Is it coming-of-age story? A fish-out-of-water tale? A by-the-book play on the original TV series? Or is this supposed to be “Mean Girls” for Gen Z? The tone is so uneven at times that the Spanish (which Peña, Longoria and Moner all speak fluently) sounds forced — as if the screenwriters wanted to make a statement: “See? This is a Latino family!”
It’s only once the script remembers that the character started out as a little girl who loves to explore new places — and who just happens to be a Latina — that the film begins to breathe, making room to embrace zany characters like the mysterious Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), the fox Swiper (voiced by Benicio Del Toro) and the monkey Boots (voiced by Danny Trejo), among others.
It’s then that director James Bobin shifts the film into something that simultaneously honors the original show while waxing nostalgic on 1980s kid-friendly adventure films like “The Goonies,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” and even “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
Thanks to his experience directing both “The Muppets” and “Muppets Most Wanted,” Bobin is no stranger to creating a world where it’s completely natural to have a bandana-wearing fox roaming around swiping things for a living. But much credit is due to Oscar-winning production designer Dan Hennah (“Lord of The Rings”), who creates a South American jungle that can both serve family adventure and bend to a hyper-reality with an animated monkey on a whim.
While the entire ensemble is fun to watch, it’s Moner who sells “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” I’m no “Dora” expert, but I did spend many hours a day (oh, so many) watching the animated series with my daughter during her toddler and preschool years, so there’s an emotional connection between the character and my daughter’s childhood that I wasn’t certain Moner could maintain.
The biggest challenge of an actor in any live-action update of an animated character is to make an audience that is already loyal to the original fall in love with a newer rendition. And that’s exactly what Moner does; her Dora has the DNA of everything that made the original so special while offering a fresh take for newer generations experiencing the character for the first time. She captures Dora’s wide-eyed innocence with aplomb while also allowing her to be just a teenager.
In the second half, the film not only deploys Spanish but also Quechua, an indigenous language of the Quechua peoples who live mainly in Peru. It may be a small thing, and one only someone of Peruvian heritage like myself might catch, but if Quechua hadn’t been spoken by the indigenous people Dora meets in the film, I am not so sure I would have been convinced by the story. Offering indigenous representation, especially in language, opens eyes to the origins of Latinx cultures, free from an Anglo or Westernized perspective, allowing characters like Dora and her family to become something Latinos of all ages can revere and enjoy.