If you think it’s odd that Nickelodeon’s animated naturalist tyke Dora the Explorer is a teenager in the new live-action adaptation of her exploits, don’t worry, the film does, too. The most charming moments of ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ come in its first half, as the 16-year-old title character (Isabela Moner), forced to live with relatives while her parents are off on a dangerous new adventure, tries to adapt to life in the suburbs and at high school.
There, her unique background, relentless cheer and wide-eyed inquisitiveness prompt strange looks, as she sets off metal detectors with the heavy-duty contents of her jungle survival kit, congratulates the cafeteria staff on a fine lunch, and grills a girl trying to “save the rainforest” about which rainforests, exactly, she’s trying to save.
For the school’s winter dance, students are encouraged to go as their favourite star; while everyone else comes dressed as soccer players, pop singers and movie actors, Dora naturally arrives as the sun and proceeds to do an adorably goofy dance. Even her cousin, one-time fellow explorer Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), turns on her at this point. A cruel nickname emerges among the kids: Dorka.
‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ is not a satire, however, nor is it an attempt to crossbreed Nickelodeon’s popular bilingual character, who made her first TV appearance in 2000, with ‘Mean Girls’. Even as it strikes a gently irreverent tone, the film also embodies its heroine’s positive energy: We understand that the world would be a better place if the rest of us were more like Dora, not the other way around.
She soon gets a chance to prove her mettle when she and three fellow students are abducted by treasure hunters trying to track down Dora’s parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria), who are searching for a lost Incan city of gold named Parapata. The Indiana Jones-style high jinks that ensue don’t quite have the visual verve or breakneck pacing of a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, or even a ‘National Treasure’, but they’re invigorated by the film’s cheekiness. Dora has to help a clueless classmate dig a “poo hole” in the jungle. Later, the kids are intoxicated by giant spores and hallucinate that they’ve become animated versions of themselves. There are jokes about neurotoxicity and dysentery. Somehow, it all works.
That’s because the film’s freewheeling, what-if quality never becomes mean-spirited or gross. Director James Bobin (who achieved a similarly good-natured silliness with his 2011 reboot of ‘The Muppets’) has a casual style that serves the material well: Nothing is ever too urgent or too lackadaisical. This is a deceptively tough balancing act. Get too loose and the movie will turn into a bunch of limp comedy sketches; get too realistic, and it will lose any sense of what makes Dora such a beloved and timeless character. Like a child unwittingly navigating a jungle full of booby traps and deadly creatures, the film walks a treacherously fine line without ever seeming to break a sweat.
Don’t miss it!
‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ releases is out in the UAE on August 15.