Film Review: ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ is a Little Gem of a Movie

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

After years of small screen popularity, intrepid young explorer Dora finally makes her big screen debut in this week’s ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold.’ The film, unapologetically aimed at children, teenagers, and their parents, portrays a quirky girl with amusing wit. The adventures are worthy of the films that inspired the character—from ‘Lara Croft’ to ‘Indiana Jones.’ Audiences can even see the homage to Nickelodeon’s ‘Legends of the Hidden Temple.’ But there is the obvious twist—the protagonist (and almost everyone else in the film) is Hispanic. The movie is thus not only an entertaining little gem, it is a long overdue depiction of Latinx culture in less wooden, hackneyed ways.

Dora (Isabela Moner, Instant Family’), is a homeschooled wiz with a knack for exploration, living somewhere in the Andean jungles. She fears little as she trollops around engaging with snappy crocs and wrapping herself in boa constrictor accessories. She knows the classics, the stars—and how to survive in the wilderness. Behind this peppy little girl (think of Lindsay Lohan’s character at the start of ‘Mean Girls’) are two adoring parents, played with tenderness by Michael Pena and Eva Longoria. But the two are explorers, professors, archeologists, and their quest to locate a long-lost Inca civilization means it is time for Dora to socialize in a wholly different type of jungle: the high school of an inner-Los Angeles neighborhood.

The detour into the concrete madness of the big city is short-lived. It is long enough, though, to provide three or four amusing nuggets about a doe-eyed girl from the wild plopped into the cynical and unforgiving milieu of the uncivilized population. More importantly, it is sufficient for Dora to pick up a group of mismatched teenagers—the class nerd, the teacher’s pet and her cousin—who will help in the upcoming adventure. When Dora’s parents vanish from the trail, Dora, her friends, and explorer Alejandro (Mexican comedian par excellence Eugenio Derbez) must follow the trail, with the aid of Dora’s faithful monkey Boots (Danny Trejo), rescue her parents, and put an end to the mystery of this Inca titular lost city once and for all.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ proceeds from that point, in many ways, just as audiences would expect—there are no plot twists or huge surprises coming our way. The surprises, as it turns out, arrive not from what screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (whose credits include the ‘Muppet’ movies, along with James Bobin, the director) does, but in what he does not do. ‘Dora,’ for one, resists descending into tired clichés about adolescence, growing up and being a good kid. Those messages are there, but they are subtle and treated with lithe humor. Preaching is not amongst the film’s flaws, unlike so many of its teenage brethren. Nor does ‘Dora’ fall into another perpetual pitfall: taking itself seriously beyond what you expect it to be.

Instead, ‘Dora’ is content to amuse with eccentric and even idiosyncratic jokes and quips. It is unafraid to touch the heartfelt (like Pena doing an amusing rendition of what rave music sounds like), to the peculiar and unpredictable (one of Dora’s friends discovering the perils of relieving oneself in the wild). ‘Dora’ offers cinematic tribute, though without explicit reference to any particular predecessor. Instead, it exhibits amusing self-awareness when one of Dora’s friends jokes about what movies taught him about “jungle puzzles,” of which there are of course many in the film, just as in the cartoon. And ‘Dora’ even offers food for thought for wily adults when the main heroine and her troupe are pollenated by a strange Amazon plant. As their visions turn blurry and their perceptions cartoonish, savvy grownups will wonder: is this a not-so-subtle drug scene? Perhaps, though the reverence for the source material has a likely more benign explanation: to reward the kids who longed to see their heroine again.

On top of its entertaining innuendo, its strong visual effects, and its impressive self-restraint, ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ possesses another virtue worthy of mention. The focus on a Hispanic heroine, with a Hispanic cast, is refreshing. It is a sad state of affairs that this must be remarked upon, and racial features by no mean entitle a film to a free pass from discerning critique. But ‘Dora’ earns praise not just because of the social context within which it exists, but because it makes maximal use of those environs. The film, for example, subtly wades into perpetual, soul-searching Latinx communities about the use of Spanish in everyday life, and about the very nature of Latinx identity itself.

The key word, once more, is subtlety. The point is there if you know to look for it, or it can pass by and no one will be much the worse for the wear. It is a truism, nevertheless, that at times when other groups are making slow but steady strides towards improved cinematic representations, Latinos remain frustratingly trapped in the milieu of hoodlums and drug dealers. ‘Dora’ offers a new perspective, and it is a fresh, welcome one.

Sometimes all it takes is a courageous, wily young person to lead the way into new adventure, through the thicket of a spine-infested jungle, and of booby-trapped treasure rooms. In ‘Dora the Lost City of Gold’ we get all that and more, a delightful little protagonist to guide us into new ways of seeing the way kids movies can be. With that, alone, this film, a delightful adventure for the entire family, is worth its weight in gold.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is distributed by Paramount Pictures and hits theaters in the U.S.A. on August 9, 2019

GRADE: (★★★)