Put under a microscope, any kids’ show is at least a little bit weird. The long-running animated “Dora the Explorer” is no exception, hinging on fourth wall-crashing moments in which the plucky eponymous heroine stops to help teach her audience basic Spanish, while often adventuring through a jungle filled with solvable puzzles, talking backpacks, and a sweet monkey who frequently wears rainboots (his name is, of course, Boots). Fortunately, everyone involved with the live-action spin on the Nickelodeon series, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” is well-aware of that fact, happily marrying the odder elements of the animated series and a fizzy “real world” adventure to delightful effect.
Tellingly, James Bobin’s film opens with a glimpse at what a faithful live-action take on the nearly two decade-old series might look like: a pair of grinning kids trundling through the jungle, aided by anthropomorphic hiking supplies and animal pals, eagerly teaching conversational Spanish along the way. Transferred into the live-action world, it of course looks silly, and when young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) suddenly turns to the camera and starts talking to a nonexistent audience, her own parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) amusingly shrug it off. Surely, she’ll grow out of it!
She does not. Flashing forward 10 years, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” picks up with the perpetually elementary school-aged Dora now a teenager (Isabela Moner), and one unable to shake off her TV-ready tics. She’s still adventuring through a jungle with a monkey, still engaging with an audience that does not exist, and still wholly removed from the real world. Moner’s full-force charm — now here is a role that could be grating and strange without the right performer to inhabit it — keep Dora fun and congenial, and the spirit of the film she’s inside only further sells a tricky, tongue-in-cheek set-up.
In a “Mean Girls”-esque twist, Dora is sent off for a temporary stay with her “city” family (including beloved childhood best pal and cousin Diego, played by Jeff Wahlberg) while her parents set about searching for the eponymous Lost City of Gold, deep in the jungle. Dora’s relentless good cheer and knack for knowledge don’t get her very far with her tribalistic peers, and her total inability to interact with other kids all but ensures she’s going to have a rough go of it (this is, after all, a teenager who has spent her entire life in isolation with her parents).
And yet Dora’s intrepid spirit keeps her pushing right along, even as Diego rebuffs her, class all-star Sammy (Madeleine Madden) tries to bring her down, and spaced-out wannabe friend Randy (Nicholas Coombe) endeavors to understand just what she’s all about. What better way to recalibrate Dora’s, well, Dora-ness, then to return her to the place she’s most happy: the jungle. In the midst of Dora’s high school troubles, her beloved parents’ search for the City of Gold (AKA Parapata) has offered a low hum of drama when they slowly cease communications as they seemingly approach their goal on the other side of the world.
Eventually kidnapped during a class trip — like the show on which it’s based, Dora’s darker twists still feel propulsive and necessary, never scary — alongside the unlikely trio of Diego, Sammy, and Randy, the foursome end up in the hands of some nefarious treasure hunters. They know what Dora’s parents are up to, and they want a piece of the pie. Saved by the amusingly anxious Alejandro (Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez), the group makes off for the jungle to save Dora’s family and, hopefully, Parapata before it can be plundered by evil mercenaries.
One part “Jumanji,” one part “Indiana Jones,” the mismatched crew flail though their initial tasks (Diego has to recapture his love for the wild, Sammy needs to loosen up, Randy needs to stop screaming, and Alejandro should perhaps just go home), while Dora can’t help but shine. Despite its exuberant upbraiding of its source material, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” slips back into some of the TV series’ weirdest tropes, including those so-called jungle puzzles and even talking animals.
But it’s all with a wink and a smile, and while younger viewers still enamored with the show will delight in seeing it transferred to the big screen, older moviegoers will surely enjoy the wacky twists that combine the show and the film. Case in point: the film’s second half reveals an animated sequence that looks just like the show…but it’s fueled by a run-in with a field of hallucinogenic flowers. It’s a tough line to toe, but Bobin and his cast (plus a winning screenplay by Matthew Robinson, Nicholas Stoller, and Tom Wheeler) make it work.
Still, some of the film’s giddy charm deflates during all that jungle-set adventuring, as a handful of limp twists are thrown into the mix for added drama (at one point, Sammy and Randy are split from the group, only to be reunited mere moments later). Moner’s charisma keeps things pushing forward, and so does the film’s appealing spirit. If only every big screen adaptation of a beloved existing property could feel this funny and fresh, there’d be less to fear about an industry besieged by recycled material that never takes a risk. That’s what Dora is all about.
Paramount Pictures will release “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” in theaters on Friday, August 9.