Dora and The Lost City of Gold (2019)
Written by Nicholas Stoller, Matthew Robinson, and Tom Wheeler
Directed by James Bobin
Of all the shows I have reviewed in this series on cinematic television adaptations, this is the only one created during my adulthood. Not having children or having spent a lot of time around Zoomers as babies, I don’t really have any emotional attachments to the source material. I’ve seen the numerous parodies of Dora that show up in pop culture, and I understand the show’s concept, though. So I was a bit surprised but intrigued when it was announced that a live-action Dora movie was in the works. I always prefer an unexpected and weird take on a well-known property rather than regurgitating something we all know. This is why I am very interested in the Greta Gerwig Barbie film. It sounds like something that isn’t just a straightforward adaptation. And that’s what we get with Dora and The Lost City of Gold, a movie that balances a genuine love of the show with the ability to poke fun at it.
Dora Marquez (Isabela Merced) has lived in the Peruvian jungle since she was a little girl and feels right at home among the animals there. While her parents (Eva Longoria, Michael Pena) go about their archaeological work, Dora spends her days on adventures with her pet monkey Boots, her visiting cousin Diego, and Backpack and Map. Her greatest challenge is Swiper, a thieving fox who loves to undermine her. Time passes, and Dora is now 16 years old. Her parents have discovered the location of Parapata, a lost city of gold, but the journey is dangerous. They send Dora to live with her cousin Diego in Los Angeles. Thus, we have a fish-out-of-water comedy for part of the picture. Dora’s class ends up on a field trip to a museum, where she is followed by mercenaries. They capture Dora and her friends with plans to use the girl as leverage against her parents. Through a series of comedic set pieces, the teenagers escape, brave the dangers of the jungle, and help Dora reunite with her family.
Of all the directions this movie could have gone, I think Nickelodeon nailed it. The film is an excellent mix of a genuine love of the character and a Brady Bunch The Movie-esque comedy where the humor comes from juxtaposing an earnest person like Dora against the more snarky, cynical reality we live in. Part of the reason the film works so well is on the shoulders of Merced. She is such a charismatic actress who plays the part with complete commitment. This means moments that could easily be comedic missteps, with an actress who played things too broadly or tongue-in-cheek, are done so well because Merced believes in the character. Longoria and Pena are also great supporting players to the actress because they find a way to play parents who tolerate their daughter’s over-imaginative nature but are also concerned that she’s still in it at an older age. It’s never played as judgmental, though, just loving worry.
On the creative side, you have director James Bobin and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller who both previously collaborated on the fantastic recent Muppet movies. In the same way, they found a balance between surreal cartoon humor and genuine human with those puppets; they do the same with a character as heightened as Dora. To make the movie honestly, you must acknowledge how silly Dora would look from an outside perspective. On the flip side, the film makes Dora’s determined nature and good heart the most potent character’s strengths. She has a boy from her school in LA sporting an obvious crush. Her female rival ends up becoming her friend after they work together during the ordeal in the jungle. Diego also re-embraces the childhood wonder he used to have when he was running around playing with Dora as a kid. Dora is not an object of ridicule; her oddness ultimately makes her the hero of the story.
I think the movie’s biggest weakness is that it hesitates to just hand the reins to Merced and let her go with it. She is the strongest part of the picture, and you can easily argue this should be a role that made her a star. So far, and likely due to COVID, we haven’t seen her in a follow-up role that raises her prominence to the next level. Her filmography shows that she’s had many prominent supporting roles in several pictures since Dora. I’m holding out that, given the right parts, we will see Merced emerge as a more recognized name. She brought an animated character to life in a very human, empathetic way.