In a world stuffed to the brim with cynical Hollywood franchise reboots that no one asked for, you can imagine that a live-action Dora the Explorer movie is pretty low on many moviegoers’ list of cinematic hopes. Despite the educational Nickelodeon cartoon amassing a very devout audience of kids, and even some parents, amid its several incarnations and spin-offs, the prospect of a live-action movie adaptation of Dora the Explorer immediately feels unbelievably absurd. Even more absurd is the fact that the movie is produced by the infamous Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes (though Bay himself had no involvement with the movie’s development), and is marketing itself as if it’s trying to be taken as a legitimate family-friendly blockbuster for the Summer season. Have Paramount and Nickelodeon truly become this desperate to adapt recognizable name brands to the big screen? Or is there some sort of unlikely inspiration fueling a project that really should be a pile of hot garbage right from the scripting stage?
Well, you might be shocked to know that while the former is still very likely true, the latter isn’t necessarily false. Arriving fashionably late for this year’s Summer movie season, and just as proudly perky and optimistic as its titular protagonist, Dora and the Lost City of Gold confidently stands as one of this Summer movie season’s most pleasant surprises. No, I’m not kidding! This movie is actually kind of good! Okay, it’s obviously not high art. This is, after all, a Nickelodeon movie distributed by Paramount’s, ahem, “Contemporary” Paramount Players label, which has so far managed to deliver last year’s insufferable Tyler Perry-directed comedy, Nobody’s Fool, and this past Valentine’s Day’s gender-flipped, race-swapped and wholly forgettable remake, What Men Want (not the best start, to say the least), so you should nonetheless keep your expectations in check here.
Overall though, if you come into it with appropriately modest and reserved expectations, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is pretty sharp, lovable and harmless fun for kids, while also having enough legitimately funny and clever moments to keep adults entertained too. Even the movie’s self-aware jabs at its own source cartoon can get some pretty big laughs from exasperated parents especially, without necessarily offending kids, or any older viewers who may be somehow nostalgic for Dora the Explorer, without immediately seeing this live-action take as a total insult to its legacy. This definitely won’t go down as the best movie of the Summer by any stretch, but if you’re looking for a lovable big screen romp that’s way more fun and charming than it has any right to be, Dora and the Lost City of Gold makes for a far better-than-expected way to beat the last stretch of the Summer heat!
Dora and the Lost City of Gold stars Isabela Moner as a sixteen-year-old incarnation of Dora the Explorer. Dora has lived her entire life in the jungle alongside her parents, Cole and Elena, played by Michael Pena and Eva Longoria, respectively, as well as her cousin, Diego, played by Jeff Wahlberg, and her monkey companion, Boots, voiced in an especially humourous turn by Danny Trejo. Years after Diego moves to Los Angeles however, Dora’s parents send her to Diego’s school for the first time, beginning a recognizable fish-out-of-water premise that sees Dora struggling to fit in with everyday kids. Dora’s knowledge will eventually prove essential to the survival of herself, Diego, and a couple of other students later on though, when they’re all kidnapped and sent to the South American jungle, in an effort to find the lost city of gold that Dora’s parents have spent the better part of their lives searching for.
The premise of the movie initially seems silly, particularly the part where Dora’s and Diego’s school seems amazingly unconcerned about the fact that four students have been abducted on a field trip, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold does a surprisingly good job of leaning into that silliness, and managing to make it both charming and funny. This is also extensively helped by the movie’s sharp lead performances, particularly from Moner, an experienced Nickelodeon star who easily carries the movie with her bubbly spirit and unyielding optimism. Moner truly does feel like teenage Dora made flesh, even if Wahlberg’s Diego performance is predictably much less recognizable, with Diego having been turned into a socially beat-down jock-type, who has long since buried his love of adventure.
As much as Moner steals the bulk of the movie however, several of the supporting actors also shine far more than you would ever expect them to in a movie inspired by Dora the Explorer. Pena and Longoria are both easy standouts, not having an excessively large amount of screentime, but definitely making every scene they’re in count, particularly Pena, who dives headfirst into his cheeky father role with hilarious aplomb! Likewise, Benicio del Toro is pretty enjoyable as Swiper, Dora’s frequent thieving fox nemesis, who is inexplicably working for this movie’s villains, and picks a handful of moments to handily cause trouble for Dora and her friends. You don’t see too much of the antagonists overall, Swiper included, but they all work as effective kids’ movie villains, namely being just dangerous enough to keep audiences on their toes, but not so dangerous that kids will ever question their inevitable defeat by the end credits.
In case you’re somehow curious, no, you don’t need to be familiar with any element of the Dora the Explorer cartoon, nor its spin-offs, to be able to follow the storyline of Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Even though the movie very clearly makes reference to its classic cartoon inspiration right from the beginning, this new live-action adventure also does a good job of accommodating newcomers, presenting a fairly straightforward marriage between a school-age comedy and a light-hearted adventure movie. Even the titular ‘Lost City of Gold’ feels like a very obvious riff on the real-world myth of El Dorado, making one wonder why the coveted location that the characters are all racing towards wasn’t just El Dorado. Then again, perhaps this could be something to do with the movie wanting to acknowledge the educational side of Dora the Explorer, rather than simply basing it on a popular myth.
Whatever the case, the storyline in Dora and the Lost City of Gold is fairly predictable and undemanding, save for one non-sensical twist towards the climax, which the movie even sees fit to pretty bluntly spoil before it’s executed. This could be a deliberate effort to satirize adventure movie cliches though, particularly those of well-known adventure movie franchises like Indiana Jones. If you’re a particular fan of those movies, and think you know exactly which cliche I mean, then yep, that’s almost certainly the one! Nonetheless, Dora and the Lost City of Gold carries few legitimate storytelling surprises, even if the movie’s story does still manage to be heartwarming and fun.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is helmed by veteran family blockbuster director, James Bobin, who is most well-known for directing 2011’s The Muppets reboot and 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass for Disney. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is certainly within Bobin’s wheelhouse, being another colourful and free-spirited family adventure movie full of lovable, lively personalities. Thus, Bobin’s direction is predictably solid throughout much of the runtime, providing light, but legitimate excitement throughout many of the more thrilling scenes, while also realizing a heartfelt and funny charm to the more character-driven and humourous moments. It feels like a perfect marriage between Dora the Explorer and an early-era coming-of-age grade school comedy, even though most of the lead personalities are supposed to be in high school.
Perhaps the highlight among Bobin’s direction however is how efficiently and surprisingly effectively he manages to both satirize and celebrate the legacy behind the original Dora the Explorer source material. Tongue-in-cheek moments like the movie poking fun at the classic cartoon’s pointless singing and educational prompts to the audience land with far more chuckles than you would ever imagine, while still respecting what’s always made Dora such an enduring and popular children’s icon. There are still times where Bobin is forced to demean his production with forced poop jokes and over-the-top slapstick, simply to try and get cheap laughs out of really young kids, but fortunately, those moments are few and far between, allowing Dora and the Lost City of Gold to mostly prop itself up with its surprisingly sharp script and surprisingly delightful performances.
The soundtrack throughout Dora and the Lost City of Gold is actually a two-composer effort, being put together by the combined likes of John Debney and Germaine Franco. Debney appears to have been hired to make a reliably fluffy, kid-approved Nickelodeon score, while Franco appears to have been enlisted to add more authentic and relatable flavouring to the compositions. The result is a soundtrack that’s pretty inoffensive, one that does its job in terms of providing a cuddly and light-hearted adventure movie score that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are also a few psuedo-musical moments that mostly exist to poke fun at the original Dora the Explorer cartoon’s tendency to randomly bust out basic songs for children, many of which are simply played for laughs, beyond a quick intro montage that incorporates the original cartoon’s theme song, establishing Dora and her cousin, Diego, and effectively treating their former cartoon adventures as if they’re canon, even within this new live-action Dora universe.
This being a kid-friendly movie, you can also imagine that the sound mixing is generally pretty cartoon-ish and silly much of the time. The most pronounced sound mixing sadly seems to have been saved for Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s handful of obligatory fart jokes, at least beyond some of the destruction in an otherwise pretty lightweight climax. Fortunately, this at least means that sensory-sensitive kids won’t have to worry about Dora and the Lost City of Gold being too overwhelming, even if it also means that the movie pretty much completely lacks a sense of real danger. Still, this is a live-action Dora the Explorer movie, so I don’t imagine that anyone will be shocked about there not being much of any recognizable stakes behind what’s going on.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold certainly isn’t an outstanding visual showcase by any stretch, but it’s also better-produced than you might initially think. The set design actually isn’t bad, and while the special effects are predictably simplistic, they work well enough to sell the family-friendly adventure on display. The most obvious CGI element is definitely Swiper, who looks zippy and upbeat enough to be believable for kids, even if it will be very evident to adults that Swiper is not actually there. Still, there is a good amount of creativity to the visual design, if not sheer excellence, but again, this is a movie that’s aiming to accommodate child audiences, so it’s bound to pull its punches with how its jungle-faring adventure is portrayed.
You can also imagine that many of the visual highlight moments are designed more around jokes than spectacle, and outside of the climax, that’s more or less true. Dora and the Lost City of Gold almost seems to deliberately satirize the idea of blockbuster spectacle in fact, whether it’s Dora obviously failing to make a large, physically impossible leap, or an unfortunate encounter with some plant spores causing Dora and several other characters to hallucinate their cartoon selves, in what’s admittedly one of the best extended jokes in the movie! Again, children might be impressed at some of the visual beats, simply because they aren’t yet old enough to see more serious, large-scale movies with more impressive and intense visual material, but adults certainly won’t see anything special. That being said however, considering that this movie’s budget is just under a very modest $50 million, Dora and the Lost City of Gold certainly looks plenty visually competent, and has a well-crafted presentation that certainly manages to get the job done.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is one of those movies that feels like it should have been a disaster, and yet, the final product is surprisingly decent. Like I said, this movie definitely isn’t high art, so you should still keep your expectations in check to some degree, but kids are bound to love it, particularly those who have already been introduced to Dora the Explorer, and/or one of its several spin-offs. Even many adults are bound to get an amusing kick out of Dora and the Lost City of Gold however,which is far funnier and more lovable than you would initially expect, particularly if you have kids of your own, and are looking for a movie that isn’t afraid to admit that wasting your own precious time in front of Dora the Explorer for their sake wasn’t always an easy job. A little self-awareness can go a long way with movies sometimes, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold manages to be just self-aware enough to lovingly poke fun at its inspiration, without making it seem cynical or mean-spirited in the process.
It’s not often that live-action family-friendly movies manage to succeed quite this effectively, but as much as it’s easy to have pretty much zero faith in a live-action Dora the Explorer movie right from the jump, Dora and the Lost City of Gold surprisingly overcomes the shadow of audience doubt, delivering a legitimately lovable franchise starter that’s pretty enjoyable for adults, and sometimes even legitimately informative for kids! Don’t be fooled by the high school premise, since Dora and the Lost City of Gold still feels like it’s being aimed primarily at an 8-12 audience that’s a little younger than high school-age, but if you have kids with a taste for Dora the Explorer, or just happen to enjoy light-hearted adventure movies yourself, then Dora and the Lost City of Gold legitimately stands an unlikely cinematic success that you’ll probably find well worth exploring for yourself.
- Charming, lovable performances throughout, especially Moner's Dora
- Sharp writing that balances Dora satire with legitimately funny and clever set pieces
- Presentation is well-produced, despite the modest budget
- Undemanding storyline with no real sense of danger
- Still forces some stupid, annoying kids' movie jokes