Dora and the Lost City of Gold is kids film with a slightly demented sense of humor and a sense of self, lacking in most children’s fare. An adventure movie whose main character is an interpretable ball of optimism and refreshingly isn’t using it as a cover for something else. Dora really is that self-confident and really that kind.
Based on the popular kid’s show of the same name Dora is true to its roots in so much as the kids will have a blast and the adults will find themselves giggling at the Poo Song. James Bobin imbues the movie with a kooky larger than life atmosphere almost as interactive as the show itself. In a way, it reminds me of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in its lush and eye-popping colorful production.
But also much like Pee-Wee, Dora (Isabela Moner) is pure innocence. Much like Pee-Wee, it’s not until she ventures out of her world does she start to realize how different she is. Moner’s Dora is an act of fearless gonzo chirpiness that if done wrong would have fallen flat. Instead, Moner walks the tightrope so well she is not only magnetic; she is the lifeblood of the movie itself.
The script by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson attempts to give Dora a kind of structure but only in the sense that it allows the scenes to move from one to another without seeming random and incoherent. The story itself is as cliche as anything Hollywood puts out regularly. Cole (Michael Pena) and Elena (Eva Longoria), Dora’s parents, send Dora off to the City, so they can hunt down the infamous Inca legend the Lost City of Gold.
But Stoller and Robinson toss in a few little twists. For one thing, Dora and her family are not estranged or in any way dysfunctional. They have a tight-knit relationship to the point Dora is heartbroken when she discovers her parents won’t be taking her along. Heartbroken or not, though, she still goes to the City, aka Los Angeles. Cole and Elena love Dora but have also noticed she doesn’t have any friends, outside of her constant simian companion Boots.
Refreshingly Dora seems to take its cue from the old dime store paperbacks. Dora gets into one situation and another until before she knows it she’s back in the Jungle in search of her parents. Of course, the reasons for how she is there and why it has three of her classmates in tow are flimsy, but Dora never pretends to be that kind of movie so why should we?
Her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) has grown distant since he moved away. He can’t seem to fathom how she is so chirpy all the time. Sammy (Madeline Powell) the class president, and resident overachiever sees Dora as a threat (a fact which baffles Dora). Despite Sammy’s attempt to be mean, Dora responds with kindness. She understands, like her, Sammy is afraid and feels alone.
Oh, and then there’s Randy (Nicholas Coombe), a fellow astronomy nerd who has a clear crush on Dora for the novel reason of her being smart and kind. It should be noted as well that Randy is the only white character in the movie.
What’s more, Dora is unafraid of its characters LatinX heritage. Bobin and his writers allow Dora, her family, her friends, and even the mercenaries, to speak both Spanish and English. As cartoonish and surreal as Dora is, the fact that its characters are bilingual and switch between languages not because of plot necessities but because that’s how people talk lends the movie a sense of cinema verite unreachable by most Hollywood prestige films.
Bobin and his crew don’t even throw up subtitles. It is a move which is taken into consideration is daring. Latinos make up the largest single-ticket purchasing block. Yet, they are rarely seen or heard in films. Paramount all but implies with its lack of subtitles, a very simple and brave truth-they aren’t needed. If you don’t speak Spanish you can figure it out by picking up context clues and if you do-well then why insult the audience? The show takes it a step further by incorporating Quechua into the story (the native language of the peoples indigenous to the Peruvian Andes), spoken by Dora and Indigenous characters throughout the movie.
Granted if I’m going to say all this I should also mention Bobin, Stoller, and Robinson are not LatinX in the slightest. If it seems like I’m asking for the sun, moon, and the skies, asking for LatinX persons to write stories about LatinX people, then I can’t help you. I can’t fix stupid.
Yet, there is Javier Aguirresarobe who has shot everything from Thor: Ragnarok to the second and third installments of the Twilight franchise. He imbues Dora with a childlike sense of wonder and imagination. Aguirresarobe paints the screen with a rich array of colors which make the frames of Dora pop. Most children’s films are quite frankly ugly and dreary bores to look at.
But Aguirresarobe can’t help but let his camera sit back in awe of everything whether it is in Los Angeles or the fields of the giant violet jungle fauna. This is because, if you notice, the camera is meant to be from Dora’s point of view; hence the wonder and joy in its framing.
Dora raises her hand in class. The camera is positioned from the teacher’s point of view. But this is because here she feels like she is part of the class. It is only when the class turns and mocks her does the camera cut to a medium shot, where Dora is alone in the frame. Subtle moments like this allow an almost uncommon empathy to pulse throughout Dora.
All of this is helped by Moner’s performance. I said it before, but I’ll say it again, she is incredible. You might remember her from Transformers: The Last Knight as one of the few actors Michael Bay didn’t cut away from every three seconds. Any actress who can force Bay to hold his camera long enough to capture a facial tick must be someone to take note of. Dora is a weird character and could easily be played for laughs. But Moner never has us laughing at Dora, even if the movie does.
Amidst all her upbeat, positive attitude, Dora does feel sadness, loneliness, and even doubt. At one point while away from her friends in the Peruvian jungle, she confides to Boots the monkey. “It’s not easy being responsible for other people.” Despite her likeability, she doesn’t make friends easily. Teenagers are often depicted as sullen, angsty, anxiety-ridden creatures incapable of understanding the broader scheme of things.
Of course, what often gets left out is that it hardly ever goes away. Teenagers are all these things, but they are also happy, bright, fearless, kind, and trusting. In other words, both teenagers and people can be more than one thing. Even Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) has hidden depths. A guide of sorts, he recruits Dora to help find her parents. Granted no one said all depths were good.
Dora is blissfully self-aware without ever becoming grating. In the beginning, we see a young Dora and Diego playing make-believe as they explore the Jungle. A masked talking fox called Swiper (Benicio del Toro) appears to the familiar cries, “Swiper! No swiping!”
Later on, Dora and her friends escape the evil henchmen. The bad guys yell for Swiper, and in he comes, jogging along to chase Dora and her friends. I couldn’t help but laugh as the movie introduced the character as imaginary and then again as a real thing without so much as an aside or even a blink of an eye.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the rare kid’s movie which bubbles with anarchic joy. The film ends as all movies should end, with the characters singing a song about the show you just watched. A hilarious and somewhat demented adventure movie for kids, which is a rare thing no matter the decade.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures