Dora the Explorer was seven years old when audiences met her on television, a sing-songy polymath who traveled the map seeking answers and solving puzzles, accompanied by a big-mouthed backpack and equally loquacious monkey, Boots. Nearly 20 years have passed since the adventure show first aired (enough to cultivate a massive global awareness), but only 10 in Dora’s world, which means her live-action debut, director James Bobin’s “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” gives audiences of all ages the chance to see the character — whose unquenchable thirst for education knew no bounds — face the ultimate test: adjusting to an American high school.
If that sounds like a pretext for a snappy, self-parodying TV-to-film adaptation — something in the vein of “21 Jump Street” or “The Dukes of Hazzard,” perhaps — think again. Yes, the movie is postmodern enough to acknowledge that there’s something odd about Dora’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall (as when she turns and asks the audience, “Can you say ‘delicioso’?”) and composing spontaneous songs for any occasion. But the most endearing quality of Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson’s script — not counting the fact they didn’t try to whitewash their Latina heroine — is the way it permits Dora to remain indefatigably upbeat no matter what the situation, whether navigating treacherous Incan temples or facing an auditorium of jeering teenage peers.
Even Indiana Jones gets nervous. But not Dora (played here by Isabela Moner), who quips, “If you just believe in yourself, anything is possible,” before plummeting down a dangerous chasm, effectively demonstrating that positivity will only take one so far. Raised in the jungle by a pair of archaeology professors (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), Dora is sent off to attend high school in Los Angeles with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) just as her parents set out to find the legendary city of Parapata. She would rather join them on the expedition, but for the film’s purposes, it’s far more interesting to see how Dora handles what we might call the “real world” — which is to say, public-school metal detectors, a modest teen-friendly makeover and the humiliation of hazing.
By confronting Dora with such indignities, the movie cleverly illustrates what she’s made of, while also giving her the chance to assemble a small posse of fellow outcasts, including formerly undisputed class smarty-pants Sammy (Madeleine Madden), who’s instantly threatened by Dora’s intelligence, and the ultra-awkward Randy (Nicholas Coombe), a typically Nickelodeon stereotype with weird hair and a virtually asexual screen chemistry. Together with Diego, these three wind up kidnapped and shipped back to South America, where a trustworthy adult named Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) helps them escape. Now all the kids need to do is find Dora’s parents before the bad guys get to Parapata.
So far, so basic. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the target audience won’t have seen the countless jungle adventure movies that “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is actively recycling — and even then, the genre dates back so many decades, even the previous generations’ reference points (be they Allan Quatermain and Indiana Jones movies, or more recent “Jumanji” and Tarzan remakes) were effectively pieced together from earlier examples of the same. More important for them will be the question of how this live-action adaptation chooses to treat their favorite elements of the cartoon.
How, for example, do you handle a talking backpack? (The answer: Treat it as a bottomless utility sack, but scrap the ability to speak.) Preschoolers love Swiper, the series’ sneaky fox antagonist (voiced here by Benicio Del Toro), but will older audiences accept a computer-animated version of this silly character? And what’s the best way to reboot Boots, Dora’s simian companion? Unlike Disney’s recent “Aladdin” update, in which a too-realistic Abu wasn’t nearly as cute as his cartoon counterpart, the new-and-improved Boots maintains the original’s blue fur and exaggerated features, but looks right for the hyper-stylized jungle environment.
Though DP Javier Aguirresarobe (“Thor: Ragnarok”) makes those fantasy landscapes appear suitably lavish, director Bobin has wisely decided not to strive for realism here — an artistic choice that makes the frequently unconvincing visual effects seem more endearing than disappointing. That pays off particularly well in a field of enormous pink flowers, which trigger a hallucination many will consider the film’s high point.
Whereas most of the cast (and especially Derbez) play broad, borderline-slapstick versions of their characters, Moner has the wide eyes and ever-chipper attitude we associate with Dora, but adds a level of charisma the animated character couldn’t convey. Previously featured in “Instant Family” and “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the young actress shows obvious star potential, to the extent one hopes this film will be enough of a hit that we can watch her grow up to be a more naturally proportioned — but no less exciting — role model than Lara Croft.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” goes out of its way to establish that the character isn’t a tomb raider or treasure hunter, but rather an explorer, risking her life for the love of knowledge. That makes her perhaps the most “woke” big-screen adventurer since the invention of cinema, making Indy’s indignant, “That belongs in a museum!” seem so 20th century by comparison. As Dora and her friends sing over the end credits, “We came together, that’s the real treasure.” Sure, it’s nice to see Dora make some friends (she always got along fine by herself in the jungle, but discovers loneliness when she moves to Los Angeles), but that corny lyric all but dismisses their entire adventure. Even so, there’s something to be said for the way the movie rewards not just intelligence but cultural curiosity, while never making a big deal of race.
Dora just so happens to know a lot of things, including three languages: English, Spanish and whatever Inca dialect the guardians of Parapata speak. (It’s a nice surprise to see Native actress Q’orianka Kilcher, who played Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” pop up as one of these Incan stewards.) The “Dora the Explorer” TV show is famous for its puzzles, during which Dora demands the audience’s participation. The movie is relatively weak in this department, serving up “National Treasure”-esque riddles and “Goonies”-like waterslides for kids too young to have seen those movies. But when it comes time for Dora to solve the climactic test — asked to make a sacrifice “of that which is most valuable” — we realize just how solid her values are.
While the film may be rudimentary in many respects, it would also be fair to say it represents a certain hope for the future: When interacting with younger generations, it can be encouraging to discover that they haven’t necessarily been indoctrinated with the same biases as their parents, and in many cases, they seem instinctively more sensitive as a result. Maybe we could all learn something from Dora after all.