'Dora and the Lost City of Gold': Film Review

A story about hormonal teens aimed at little kids.
8/9/2019

Isabela Moner, Eva Longoria and Michael Pena star in this live-action film adaptation of the popular animated series 'Dora the Explorer.'

Dora's grown up a bit since her seemingly perennial childhood through eight seasons on TV beginning in 2000 and her briefer tween years starting in 2009, but the audience will remain largely hormone-free for her big-screen debut in Dora and the Lost City of Gold.

Except for some of the jargon and the interracial cast, this is a film whose sensibility and aesthetics lie squarely — in both senses of the word — in the 1950s. Imparting the air of having been highly sanitized and thoroughly rinsed, this late summer Paramount release is squeaky clean and unhip to an unusual degree, its commercial success resting all but exclusively on a built-in fan base.

Something seems off and far too Hollywood-ish from the very beginning, where we find the 16-year-old Dora (the earnestly conscientious, rather mature and nothing if not lively Isabela Moner) living with her zoologist mom (Eva Longoria) and archeologist dad (Michael Pena) in a deep jungle abode so luxurious and elaborate that it looks like something rich tourists would pay a few grand a night to stay in. Like Tarzan, Dora grew up in the jungle with animals as best friends but, unlike the fictional vine-swinger, she's being sent to L.A. to study at Silverlake High.

Dora has relatives to stay with, including good-looking cousin and all-around too-cool-for-school Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Mark). But she's quickly deemed a weirdo, to Diego's embarrassment, and piling on is the conceited, condescending Sammy (Madeleine Madden), an intimidator who does all she can to make the newcomer's life miserable at school. The only guy who takes to her is ultimate nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe), and it isn't long before this ill-matched foursome finds itself transported from the Natural History Museum back to Dora's parents' place in Peru to renew the search for the titular destination.

Of course, a bad guy, Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), worms his way into the mix, but by now it's quite clear that the filmmakers never intend to try to present any real challenges or formidable foes that would generate genuine suspense or dramatic excitement. Although this franchise relies upon preteens for its core audience, upping the ages of its protagonists to a more hormonal demographic makes one imagine that prospective viewers have been exposed to at least mildly rugged Indiana Jones or Transformers-like action, to the extent that more eventful and exciting scenes could have been served up. In the action and suspense department, what director James Bobin (The Muppets, Muppets Most Wanted, Alice Through the Looking Glass) delivers here feels more like 1950s kiddie television.

In essence, every dramatic goal is achieved far too easily, every opponent is ultimately made of straw. The characters are never truly challenged, as if the filmmakers are afraid that any credible peril might prove too frightening for some little kid. There's nothing remotely akin to Bambi's mother's death here to disturb any youngster's sleep.

What keeps things alive, up to a point, is the imperturbable attitude of the titular heroine, who is invested with try-and-stop-me spirit by Moner, who's actually 18 and looks it despite preventive measures. The same goes for Wahlberg, who's 19. There's a palpable gap you can't help but notice between the essentially innocent, borderline-pubescent nature of the leading characters and the film itself, and the more confident and mature vibes emanating from the leading actors. The director seems to be trying to keep the hormones at bay, but there are some things you just can't disguise, perhaps human nature first and foremost. Dora seems committed to projecting a pre-sexualized version of youth, while throbbing unacknowledged beneath the surface is something a bit more real, its presence rigorously ignored. To be believed, this story should have been set in 1955.

Production company: Burr! Productions
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Isabel Moner, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Adriana Barraza, Temuera Morrison, Danny Trejo, Jeff Wahlberg, Nicholas Coombie, Madeleine Madden, Q'Orianka Kilcher, Christopher Kirby, Isela Vega
Director: James Bobin
Screenwriters: Nicholas Stoller, Matthew Robinson, story by Tom Wheeler, Nicholas Stoller; based on the television series
Dora the Explorer by Chris Gifford, Valerie Walsh Valdes and Eric Weiner
Producer: Kirstin Burr
Executive producers: Julia Pastor, Eugenio Derbez, John G. Scotti
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Dan Hennah
Costume designer: Rahel Afiley
Editor: Mark Everson
Music: John Debney, Germaine Franco
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG, 103 minutes