“Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” the live-action version of the animated “Dora the Explorer” TV show, was way better than I thought it would be, although I must admit my expectations were low.
When we first saw posters for the new, live-action movie based on the animated series, my son was stoked. He loved Dora when he was little, even though I, like many moms and dads, found it excruciatingly, unbearably annoying.
There was something nostalgic for him in this remake, and the film didn’t disappoint. It was certainly annoying, cloyingly sweet, yet still delivered what the kids wanted: an independent explorer whose confidence and spunkiness carry her through the craziest adventures.
Paying Homage to the Original Dora
The original series started in 2000 and ran on Nickelodeon for 176 episodes. It featured a young girl, her pet monkey, and a whole bunch of objects such as a talking map and an extraordinarily well-provisioned talking backpack.
Since the show was made for pre-school children, episodes dealt with problem-solving, learning new words in English and Spanish, and following directions. Little animated Dora, with her big brown eyes and unfathomable glee, would turn to the camera and ask things such as, “Can you say ‘camera’?” Her archaeologist parents were never around, and she had free rein of the jungle.
While the parents are an essential part of the plot in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” the creators pay homage to the original, and it’s pretty sweet. Early on, Dora, the delightful Isabela Moner, talks to an unseen audience, and her family is confused. Her dad (Michael Peña) looks around, perplexed, but decides she’ll grow out of it.
The original, animated Dora was just so hard to bear. She was squeaky and happy and sang these songs that would get stuck in your head for a million years, such as the backpack song. If you know what I’m talking about, you’re already cursing me because the song is now stuck in your head, and good luck getting rid of it.
The Dora franchise has moved on since the animated series. Books and a new TV series, “Dora and Friends: Into the City!,” have established Dora as a growing girl. In this iteration, she has graduated from her pre-school jungle years into a young lady of the metropolis, doing good deeds with friends and helping animals.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” makes this jump as well. The movie starts with her and her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), of “Go, Diego! Go!,” as little kids playing near their jungle home before he and his family move to the city.
Ten Years Later
We pick up Dora’s story 10 years later, while she self-records her adventures in the jungle. The conceit of the original, where Dora is never alone because we’re with her, still holds. Only now she looks out at the camera and says things such as, “Can you say ‘poisonous neurotoxin’?”
When her parents have an epic quest to embark upon, to find, what else, the lost city of gold, they pack Dora off to live with Diego’s family in the states and start high school. She protests, wanting to join them on their adventure, or simply wanting to continue her solitary life of personal jungle exploration.
“You’re all alone out there,” her dad says, when she protests.
“Why is that a bad thing?” Dora counters.
“Because we won’t always be there to pull you up. Go to the city, make friends,” he says. And she does.
Off she goes. It’s an odd choice for a mom and dad who have kept her unsocialized in the jungle her whole life. Dora is fascinated by everything, and her wide-eyed awe is odd to everyone she encounters. Diego, assorted classmates, and even her abuela (Adriana Barraza) find her naiveté and innocence about civilization troubling.
But this is a Dora who is true to the original. She retains the joy of discovery.
Embracing Dora’s Annoyingness
All the elements of the animated series are here, even that horrible song. But part of what worked is that the movie embraces how annoying Dora is. Instead of just moms and dads beyond the screen of television land finding Dora so irritating, everyone she meets finds her maddening as well.
She vexes her classmates with her upbeat nature, endless threads of knowledge, and unwavering sense of self-confidence. What’s great about this is that the moms and dads are finally justified in hating Dora because everyone in the movie does too! At least for a little while, because Moner is so charming that eventually we all come around, just like her new friends at Silver Lake High School.
Dora appears to have no self-awareness about how her teen peers perceive her, but she just hasn’t internalized their harsh judgement. Even in her best primo, Diego, tells her to “just stop being you and be normal.” She insists that being her true self is all she can be. While this is certainly the going message of our time, there is also something to be said for making calculated determinations about how much of your personality needs to be front and center at all times.
Dora goes all in on her true self no matter the circumstances. She just can’t read the room. But because this is a movie based on a pre-schooler’s annoyingly cute animated TV show, that works for her. For the rest of us, it’s possible that doing a hyper-realistic peacock dance while wearing a DIY sunshine costume at your first high school dance wouldn’t go quite so well as it does for Dora.
To be honest, it doesn’t turn out so great for Dora, either. “I never felt lonely when I was by myself in the jungle, but now that I’m surrounded by kids, I feel alone all the time,” she confides to her abuela. She eventually realizes that “it’s easier to be alone; it’s hard being responsible for other people.” And basically all the parents in the theater went, “Ya think?”
Endearing Movie Clichés
At heart, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is cast in the mold of other archaeology movies, such as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “The Goonies” (yes, I’m calling “The Goonies” an archaeology movie, just go with it). “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” has all the elements of a great archaeology movie: impromptu water slides, ancient aqueducts, symbols, confusing trails, booby traps, and quicksand.
Just to recap, we all know by now how to get out of quicksand, yes? You must evenly distribute your weight, lie flat, float atop it, and then backstroke out of it.
All these things merge with the memorable memes from “Dora the Explorer” episodes. Swiper the Fox (Benicio del Toro) swipes things all over the place, Boots the Monkey (Danny Trejo) squeaks and causes trouble, and a field of oversized hallucinogenic flowers turns everyone into their animated original series selves until they come down.
Dora in live action is everything she wasn’t in cartoon form. She is charming and life-affirming instead of horribly annoying and cloying. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is pretty well the cutest live-action kids movie, considering it derives from the most spectacularly annoying, animated preschool show ever made.