Nickelodeon tried to make Dora the Explorer (2000- ) relevant to older audiences once before. A television staple for many Millennials and Gen Zers, Dora’s a young girl who — along with her talking animal friends and an animate backpack and map — aims to teach basic Spanish words and phrases to children between the ages of two and seven. It remained on air for nearly two decades before Nick decided to try something new. Trading the original iteration of the show for a more mature version aimed at tweens, Dora and Friends: Into the City! (2014-17) saw the character swap her animal comrades and jungle setting for a fictional city filled with other girls her age. It was not remotely as successful as its predecessor, as evidenced by its mere three-year run. However, just two years after shuttering Into the City!, the studio is back at it again: This time, Dora’s a real-life high schooler (Isabela Moner) in search of ancient artifacts. Unlike the last attempt to make the pint-sized adventurer relevant, Dora and the Lost City of Gold modestly strikes it rich.
From the highly stylized opening sequence that sees a young Dora (Madelyn Miranda) and her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) swinging through the jungle singing the show’s opening theme song, it’s apparent that the film is dedicated to its source material. That is, until Dora’s parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) call the kids’ names and reality snaps back into place. The suggestion that the cartoon is nothing more than Dora’s imagination drives the new film’s narrative. She’s living in her own world — one where she’s the host of an infantile adventure show. When Diego moves to the city for his mom’s new job, the film flashes forward a decade. Now 16 years old, Dora is still sporting the same brightly-colored outfit and touting around her trusty companions as she rollicks through the jungle without an iota of fear. This reckless behavior results in a tough decision for her mom and dad: Dora will head into the city to finish her schooling while they complete their career-long search for a lost Incan civilization. As it turns out, high school is the one adventure Dora has yet to tackle.
Her parents aren’t the only ones searching for the lost city of gold, however. A team of villainous mercenaries know they can beat Dora’s parents to the treasure if the adolescent explorer leads them straight to it. What transpires is a mashup of Elf (2003) and all four Indiana Jones films, with Dora serving as the adventurer/fish-out-of-water hybrid. After an unexpected turn of events, Dora, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), and fellow classmates Sammy (Madeleine Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) must make their way through the South American rainforest with the help of family friend Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) while also making sure to avoid the bad guys hot on their trail. Their journey contains plenty of what Randy dubs “jungle puzzles,” most of which are boosted straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and The Last Crusade (1989), before heading into a third act that is more Temple of Doom (1984) and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). (Considering that the Indiana Jones franchise was roped into Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm back in 2012, Dora is odd but admittedly sensible candidate for an off-brand Indy substitute.)
However obscure or arbitrary the idea might sound initially, Nickelodeon’s decision to produce a feature film based on Dora the Explorer makes sense. Not only does it qualify as a nostalgia mine, but it’s also the longest-running show in their educational programming block Nick Jr. From toys to books to home videos to video games, Dora is intellectual property that Nickelodeon would be foolish not to cash in on (especially when their rival Walt Disney Studios looming like a juggernaut over the multiplex landscape). Co-writer Nicholas Stoller and director James Bobin are the ideal choices for an adaption of this kind — the pair are responsible for The Muppets (2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (2014), while Stoller has also written successful animated films like Storks (2016) and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017). The sense of humor is more family-friendly than some of Stoller’s R-rated comedies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) and Neighbors (2014), but his signature brand of British cynicism turns what could have been a tiresome money-grab into a decent live-action adaptation that far exceeds Disney’s recent efforts.
Along with co-writer Matthew Robinson, the two have found a way to honor the original program while refusing to be bound by it. Dora’s sanguine attitude and sing-songy nature are openly mocked, while the animation style of the show is reduced to a particularly memorable sight gag. Meanwhile, Boots’ alleged ability to talk is questioned by anyone who happens to see Dora "conversing" with her CGI monkey sidekick. (For whatever reason, Swiper the Fox, voiced by Benicio del Toro, openly talks to his gang of soldiers-for-hire, who don’t bat an eye at this. Shouldn't Dora’s crew be just as accommodating to Boots’ anthropomorphism?) It’s a shame when Dora resorts to easy potty humor because the majority of the comedy actually works quite successfully. The film’s blend of high- and low-brow gags conjoined with big-time thrills and a real sense of peril culminate in an unpredictable outing that ranks among some of the more amusing live-action remakes to date.
In the wake of The Lion King (2019) and Disney’s apparent determination to dully remake all of its animated features, it’s admirable to see something as imaginative as Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Isabela Moner operates as a human cartoon character who embodies the film’s namesake with ease. Who would have thought that the stand-out pairing of Moner and del Toro in Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) would be replicated within the year? And in a self-aware adaptation of an educational TV series, no less? There’s no telling if Nickelodeon will continue to go down a similar route with some of their other Nick Jr. titles — perhaps a Blue’s Clues (1996-2006) neo-noir? — but even if Dora ends up standing alone, it will remain a stand-out in a time where profit seems more important than ingenuity. At least The Lost City of Gold seems to give the two equal weight.