Dir: James Bobin
Like several other recent kids movies, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is based on something I was too old for the first time round. By all accounts, the show was a fun and educational cartoon for young children, teaching them about other cultures. As far as I can tell, this live action take on the material keeps the core of that, ageing the characters up but keeping the material suitable for the show’s target audience as well as the older siblings who might now be taking them to this movie.
We get a brief glimpse of Dora and her cousin Diego as little kids running around the jungle with Dora’s monkey Boots. Most of the film takes place 10 years later. Dora (Isabella Moner) is 16 and when her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena, both enjoying themselves) decide to go into the jungle to search for the golden city of the title they send Dora to stay with Diego in LA, fearing she’s still too irresponsible for a full scale adventure. Dora doesn’t fit in at high school, on a field trip she and Diego are thrown together with a couple of other kids and they all find themselves kidnapped by treasure hunters and thrown into a jungle adventure.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a film that truly embraces what it is. It’s a live action cartoon and director James Bobin, writers Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson and the whole cast commit to this tone from the start. Whenever the film threatens to forget this, even for a second, a gag will be thrown in to re-establish the knowing tone. Bobin’s debut, The Muppets (2011), feels like a key influence. Dora isn’t as consistently hilarious, and lacks the history that gave The Muppets such poignancy and joy, but it has a similar comic tone and love of playing around with the relationship between film and audience. This is all done so deftly that it never feels smug, rather than the film showing you how clever it is, it invites you in, whether directly through Dora asking things like “Can you say poisonous tree frog?” or simply by acknowledging that, yes, this is all very silly. There are many other detectable influences here. Bobin nods with palpable glee to Indiana Jones (particularly Last Crusade) and steals several moves from The Goonies. The fact that Dora, even if it’s unlikely to ascend to the heights of the adoration those films are held in, isn’t embarrassed by those comparisons is a testament to how well the film works on its own terms.
The film may be accessible to older kids and adults, but neither the tone nor the story are pitched at them. This is resolutely a kids film and that is reflected in the way it talks to its audience. While there is an attraction between Diego and serious minded Sammy (Madeline Madden), neither she nor Dora is ever defined by a relationship and both Dora and the film are much more concerned with friendship than they are romance. The morals are simple but effective, espousing the value of exploring - learning for its own sake - over using that exploration for any monetary gain.
The main reason the film works so well is 18 year old Isabella Moner, who impressed earlier this year by helping bring emotional weight to Instant Family, which could easily have been just another broad Hollywood comedy. This performance is completely different in tone; wide-eyed, irrepressibly energetic; a cartoon character who has stepped whole cloth out of her world and into an LA high school. With the wrong handling it could all be incredibly grating, but Moner’s performance has an unfailingly sunny enthusiasm, whether she’s having her bag searched on her first day of high school or singing a song about poo. Along with that, her knack for comic timing and expressive face sell every beat. The rest of the cast are just as game. This does mean there are a few overplayed moments, and Bobin does allow a few gags (Dora’s dad telling her what rave music is like, for instance) to run a bit longer than they need to, but there’s generally a nice dynamic between the cast, which allows the friendships between them to grow more naturally than you might expect.
The energy of the cast is matched by the direction. Without feeling rushed, the film moves along at a pace, finding just a few well placed moments to take a breath. The moments of action are always inflected with the same humour as the rest of the film (Swiper gets more than a few laughs) and use the characters established strengths to get them out of jams (again leaning on the morals a bit to teach younger kids the value of teamwork).
It may be simple and broad, the villain may be obvious from ten miles off, and we may have seen many of its plot points in close to specific detail before, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold is impossible to dislike. I imagine it will work brilliantly for its target audience and also be appreciated by the parents who will likely be very be grateful they aren’t being dragged to Playmobil: The Movie instead. It probably won’t stay in my head that long, but I can’t deny I had great fun with it for 102 minutes.