There is an early scene in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” where Dora (Isabela Moner) enters her new Los Angeles high school for the first time—having spent her whole life prior living with her parents in the jungle—and is faced with a metal detector. She saunters through innocently enough but is stopped and taken aside by a security guard to have her bag checked. Dora is frustrated and confused that she isn’t allowed to keep all her wilderness survival gear, but she really loses it when she is told that the one item she can take in is her yo-yo. “Really?” she asks, “but this is my most dangerous weapon”.
We laugh here, and forget the line for the moment, but then, toward the end of the film, one of the treasure hunting mercenaries she’s been facing all along charges at her and she quickly knocks him down with her “deadliest weapon”. To my memory this character is never seen again; so I ask myself, does this Dora kill people with her yo-yo?
Even if I am misremembering, and the mercenary is alive, one thing is certain, this Dora kicks ass! She’s a smart, athletic, independent, and highly self-motivated young girl, but the quality that really makes her shine is her unrepentant childish, optimism. There is a beautiful juxtaposition between the very adult way in which Dora maneuvers the jungle, and the childish way she sings “backpack, backpack” as she walks to the school bus. All this works so well that the character is both hilarious and endearing, and ultimately quite memorable.
While the characterization of Dora herself is practically perfect, director James Bobin struggles at times with the more grounded characters she travels with. Dora is joined on her expedition by her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), her rival Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and her friend Randy (Nicholas Coombe). Each of these characters have distinct personalities and tight relationships with the film’s star: Diego feels embarrassed by her childishness, Sammy feels threatened by her intelligence, and Randy feels attracted to her magnanimity. Each relationship here works on its own and is well developed throughout the film, but when these sidekicks interact with each other apart from Dora, her absence is sorely felt.
This problem reaches its zenith when the film tries to thrust on us a romantic plot between Diego and Sammy, despite the characters having few interactions alone with each other, and distinctly less entertainment value without Dora to play off of. The plot is ultimately harmless as it takes a far back seat to the more interesting stories, but it is still an unfortunate blemish in the corner of an otherwise shining picture. Diego and Sammy’s big kiss at the end might be remembered as the least impactful of such moments in Hollywood history.
And yet it’s easy to forgive these shortcomings in the face of the frankly shocking number of things that the film gets right. Next to Dora’s character, the other great strength of the film is how absurd it is able to get without feeling unnatural. This film balances talking animals, a character who teaches the audience Spanish, an animated dream sequence, ancient magic, and a dance sequence summarizing the plot of the film, with no major hiccups.
Not only does Bobin know how to effectively get weird, but he also knows how to effectively have characters call weirdness out. There is an artful precision to the film’s selective awareness that things are not normal. While he might have found some cheap laughs in having Sammy question why it is that Swiper is able to talk, I find it far funnier that she asks instead why he has to wear a mask. “Aren’t foxes already anonymous?”
I really love this movie. It has its problems, but I love it all the same. It’s the kind of movie that I think is easy to love when you know what it is. It is a self-aware and completely insane comedic adaptation of a heartfelt yet bland cartoon made to teach toddlers Spanish which, though memorable, hasn’t been relevant for nearly a decade. Live action Dora the Explorer as a teenager is a very silly idea, and this is a deservingly silly movie. I hope that you all love it as much as I do.