Ten years ago bright young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) was enjoying daily adventures in the Peruvian jungle with her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) and monkey sidekick Boots. Now Dora is a teenager (Isabela Moner) and her parents, renowned jungle explorers Elena (Eva Longoria) and Cole (Michael Peña) decide it is time she left exploring to the grownups and go to high school. Relocating to America, an ever eager, super-smart, upbeat Dora inevitably struggles to fit at school, scorned by her surly teenage peers to the embarrassment of a now seventeen year old Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). While on a class field trip to a museum Dora, Diego and hapless fellow high-schoolers Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) are abducted by evil mercenaries who fly them back to Peru. They awaken in the jungle where, aided by inept adventurer Alejandro Gutierrez (Eugenio Derbez), Dora sets on a mission to save her missing parents and locate the fabled lost city of Parapata.
Back in 2012 YouTube channel CollegeHumor crafted a series of spoof videos with Ariel Winter re-imagining pre-school children's cartoon character Dora the Explorer as an action heroine. James Bobin's live-action treatment does not go quite that far but still leans more towards a jokey junior Indiana Jones vibe rather than the educational bent the character was created for. If you did not grow up or at least have a passing familiarity with Nickelodeon's original cartoon show from the early 2000s it is likely Dora's appeal will pass you by. Even so Dora and the Lost City of Gold has some laudable qualities, including a pitch-perfect wide-eyed performance from rising star Isabela Moner. She ably captures the right mix of pluck, idealism and infectious enthusiasm for learning that make Dora an iconic educational character. Much like Robert Rodriguez's Spy Kids franchise the film also pleasingly emphasizes Dora's status as a Latin pop cultural icon with cross-cultural appeal, spotlighting Spanish dialogue, musical numbers and a cast peppered with Mexican and Latin American superstars. Including south of the border cinema icons Adriana Barraza and Isela Vega (who made horror films with Boris Karloff, worked with Sam Peckinpah on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and now this - what a career!), Mexico's reigning king of comedy Eugenio Derbez and a casting coup in Benicio Del Toro as the voice of Dora's long-time nemesis Swiper the Fox. Also lookout for surprise cameos from Danny Trejo and Q'orianka Kilcher, formerly Pocahontas in Terence Malick's The New World (2005).
Co-written by comedy staple Nicholas Stoller the setup resembles the underrated feature film treatment of Nancy Drew (2007). As in that movie here an overachieving adolescent genius heroine finds herself a fish out of water in a high school where anyone smart, gifted or just different is resented, detested and shunned. The core message, stay true to yourself no matter what others think is steeped in cliche though heartening nonetheless. However one could argue the plot does not dwell on Dora's high school malaise long enough. It all too swiftly segues into adventure mode, trading thematic relevance for jungle hijinks. What follows is lightweight but likable and indulges in a little fourth-wall breaking humour that pokes gentle fun at Dora's cartoon origins while only occasionally crossing a line into cynical grownup placating snark. Aside from a finale that steals shamelessly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Dora and the Lost City of Gold brings a level of ingenuity to its family friendly antics. While the plot upholds an emphasis on teamwork and puzzle solving present in the original cartoon, further sensory delights include its charming faux handmade production design, a surprisingly trippy animated sequence and fun climactic song-and-dance number that features a gag about dysentery.