By Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
These days, there’s no intellectual property that hasn’t been mined for a big-budget, live-action Hollywood remake. But the adaptation of the popular educational kiddie cartoon “Dora the Explorer” into the summer-friendly romp “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is a no-brainer. The beloved character of Dora, with whom Gen Z grew up, becomes a winning 21st century heroine in this perky action-adventure flick that pulls heavily from the “Indiana Jones” movies and other kid-friendly action-adventure classics.
To adapt the interactive kiddie show into something a bit more sophisticated to appeal to the preteen set who are no longer the preschool set, director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (who cut their teeth in comedy) have brought a healthy dose of irony to the format. Their leading lady, Isabela Moner, proves to be more than up to the challenge of walking the fine line of sincere in silly in her performance too. “Can you say ‘neurotoxicity’?” she asks the audience in one of Dora’s signature direct addresses to the camera, with a wide-eyed and slightly manic enthusiasm that lets us know we’re all in on the joke.
Dora falls into that grand cinematic tradition of brave naifs who embark on big adventures (see: Herman, Pee-wee). Dora has been brought up in the jungle by her professor parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena), and she knows everything about her surroundings. She just doesn’t know much about other people. Her parents ship her off to “the city” to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) to study the indigenous culture of American high schools and pick up some social skills while they go off in search of Parapata, an ancient Incan city of gold.
The happy, open, completely guileless Dora might be able to survive the elements, but it’s questionable whether she’ll survive high school. Diego is embarrassed by her, queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden) is threatened by her, and the school nerd (Nicholas Coombe) is enamored of her. The quartet gets separated from the pack on a field trip, then kidnapped to South America by a group of bounty hunters hoping to use Dora to find her parents and swoop in on the treasure. Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), an academic friend of Dora’s parents, rescues the kids, and they make a break for it into the jungle.
Moner’s layered comedic performance, which at once nods at the “Dora” formula while acknowledging the conceit, is deceptively difficult and nuanced. She cheerily sings songs about doing your business in the jungle while brandishing a shovel and breathlessly offers up fun facts. She’s delightfully dorky, a rare commodity in this day and age of sarcastic, wise-beyond-their-years teens. In contrast, Derbez’s slapsticky style is practically vaudevillian, or even say rodeo clownish, as he pulls faces and subjects his body to humiliation. It’s a jarring performance generation gap.
The action in this live-action adaptation is sanded down and decidedly safe. Bobin loses the geographical thread in the film’s climax in and around Parapata, but it’s never about the visual thrills, it’s about the girl at the center of it all. When Dora explains they’re not treasure hunters but explorers there to learn, the jungle puzzle all clicks into place. Dora, with her backpack, sunny outlook and multicultural perspective, is truly the hero we need for this century.