For twenty years, Nickeodeon’s Dora the Explorer has taken children on whimsical adventures with her talking backpack, talking map, and anthropomorphic monkey pal Boots by her side (and maybe taught young viewers a little bit of Spanish along the way). Aimed squarely at the kindergarten set, those adventures have never really contained anything approaching actual drama, so I imagine most parents enter into Dora and the Lost City of Gold dreading the idea of stretching the, shall we say, leisurely paced show out to a hundred minutes. Fortunately, Dora’s first foray onto the big screen is packed with enough adventure, humor, and good heart to please the parents just as much as the kids.
Raised in the jungles of Peru by her explorer parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria), 16-year-old Dora (Isabela Moner) dreams of making discoveries like her parents, often exploring local ruins with her trusty monkey sidekick, Boots. Her parents make a discovery that they think will lead them to Parapata, a fabled Incan lost city of gold, but the way is too dangerous to take Dora along so they send her on a possibly even more dangerous mission: high school in Los Angeles. She attends the same school as her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Mark and Donnie), who hasn’t seen her since the pair was six years old, and who is mortified by all the clueless spectacle that the home-schooled Dora creates with her naïveté. But Dora is just a good-hearted person who wants to be friends with everyone, whether it’s school nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) or Sammy (Madeleine Madden), the overachieving ice queen student council president who is none too pleased with the threat that Dora’s book smarts bring to her class ranking. On a field trip, all four end up being kidnapped by mercenaries who are hot on the trail of Dora’s parents and believe they can force her into tracking them down. When the foursome awake in Peru, they make a quick escape with the help of fellow explorer Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) and then it’s a race to find Dora’s parents—and maybe even the fabled Parapata—before the mercenaries do.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold does get off to a bit of a slow start. The early scenes set when Dora and Diego are 6 have some throwbacks to the show that are painfully unfunny, and the silence that greeted them in the screening I attended made me dread what was to come. The pace picks up considerably when Dora is sent off to L.A., and though the bullying high-school-is-hell tropes are nothing you haven’t seen before, there is appeal in Moner’s never-dimming optimism and Wahlberg’s squirming.
Once the setting moves back to Peru, though, the film is off to the races, a non-stop barrage of challenges and dangers for our plucky heroine to overcome with a little help from her friends. The end result is basically a kid-friendly version of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (And if you haven’t re-watched that movie lately, despite also being rated PG, it is decidedly not kid-friendly; Dora has 100% less melting Nazis.) Director James Bobin (The Muppets, Alice Through the Looking Glass) keeps the action coming fast and furious without ever getting overwhelming for younger sensibilities and coaxes great performances from his actors, even as he revels in some of the tropes of the kid-flick genre. (There is a big musical number to end the film, which would come off as lazy if the song weren’t written by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, thus turning out much more fun than it has any right to be.) There are still a few jokes in the remainder of the movie that fall flat (Alejandro’s constant screaming gets old quickly and you’ll be sick of the phrase “jungle puzzles” well before Coombe’s character stops saying it) but the action moves so quickly that, like its heroine, the film surefootedly bounds past these minor stumbles with a smile on its face.
It’s easy to see why Nickelodeon might want to age-up Dora in this latest incarnation, hoping to age the franchise along with viewers to gain a few more years of dedication from the existing fanbase. (The same trick worked with Dora and Friends: Into the City!, which aged the character from 7 to 10.) One might question why they jumped the character all the way up to 16 and cast actors in their late teens when the target audience is still clearly tweens, but the gamble worked primarily because Moner is such a winning presence as Dora. The indefatigable nature of the character shines through whether she’s doing a should-be-embarrassing dance in the high school gym or teaching her friends how to escape quicksand. She is so much fun as Dora, and the adventures that she goes on are such an exciting change of pace from most of the current crop of kid’s fare, that this parent is hoping they can turn this into a fun little franchise before Moner ages out of the role. | Jason Green