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Saturday, August 10, 2019

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

I did not exactly walk into Dora and the Lost City of Gold with high expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised, and I think a lot of adults will be as well.  This is a playful and energetic adventure comedy that blurs the line between parody and tribute to the source material (the long running Nickelodeon cartoon series), while at the same time delivering a solid comedic adventure that's just a lot of fun.  It also features a star-making turn by young Isabella Moner as the titular Explorer, who shows a boundless energy here, and great comic timing.

Director James Bobin (Muppets Most Wanted), and the screenwriting team of Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller, strike the right tonal balance here.  They understand the inherent weirdness of the concept of the original cartoon, and in bringing it to live action, don't shy away from it.  In fact, they're having a lot of fun with it.  Nobody in this movie questions why there's a CG cartoon fox named Swiper (voice by Benicio Del Toro) running around in the real world, although one person does question why a fox would have to wear a mask in order to conceal its identity.  It also doesn't feel the need to be "hip", by being mean or cruelly mocking the show.  They admit it's all very weird, but you can also sense the admiration.  They have taken the elements of the show, poked the right amount of fun at it, and then plopped it into an adventure ripped out of Indiana Jones or Jumanji

At the center of it all is Isabella Moner, who easily comes across as if she were born to play the role of the now-teenaged Dora, who despite being older, has not changed all that much.  She's endlessly enthusiastic, stopping total strangers to say "hello" in both English and Spanish, and is just unflappably sunny in just about anything she does.  Dora is the type of girl who never lets anything get her down, and has a song for just about any occasion.  There is this joyful, borderline insane at times, exuberance that she brings here that just seems right for Dora.  It often reminded me of Amy Adams in Enchanted, probably because both that film and this deal with a flamboyant cartoon figure who is taken out of their environment, and into a more realistic setting.  Moner, who has stood out in supporting roles in films such as Sicario: Day of the Soldado and Instant Family, finally gets to show her stuff in a leading role, and I honestly can't want to see where she goes from here.

16-year-old Dora, we learn, has been living in the jungle all her life with her ancient ruin-obsessed parents (Michael Pena and Eva Longoria, both very funny), and her CG monkey companion Boots, who doesn't normally talk, but when he seldom does, it is with the voice of Danny Trejo.  Dora has lived a great life of learning about the world and discovering lost civilizations, but her parents feel that she needs a more normal life, and should be with other kids her age.  So, while her parents are off in search for Parapata, the fabled lost city of gold, they send Dora to Los Angeles to attend public school for the first time with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), who used to be best friends with Dora when they were children, but he is now a jaded and cynical teen, who is embarrassed by her endlessly cheerful demeanor. 

The stuff about Dora trying to fit in at school are easily the funniest moments of the film, and create an almost Mean Girls-like satirical vibe, as Dora runs afoul of the "queen bee" at the school, the over-achieving Sammy (Madeleine Madden).  But, adventure is waiting, as Dora, Diego, Sammy and the video game-obsessed Randy (Nicholas Coombe) are kidnapped by evil mercenaries, who are looking for the fabled city of Parapata as well, and want Dora and her friends to lead them there, thinking that Dora shares her parent's knowledge.  The adventure element remains fun, although it's not quite as funny as the "fish out of water" portion of the story.  Still, there are some imaginative sequences, and the movie has a tone similar to The Goonies, as these kids find themselves looking for lost treasure, and constantly being pursued by criminals (and their CG fox ally), and making a lot of daring escapes. 

There is an energy here that keeps the film going, even if not all of the jokes work.  I was so enamored with Moner's lead performance, and the overall oddball adventure tone of the film that I couldn't resist falling for it.  Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the kind of family film that is checking off the required narrative notes and required pit stops, like having a romance bloom between two of the kids, and having Dora and her friends forced to outwit some ancient traps that guard the hidden temple.  But, it's done with such energy and humor, you don't really have time to notice.  This is simply a highly enjoyable film that just wants to make the audience happy, and it succeeds.  There's not much to think about here, but there shouldn't be in the first place.  It's silly escapism that works, because it knows how to poke fun at itself, while still giving us a reason to care.

I'll understand if you are doubtful.  I was too.  But I can almost guarantee that should you see it, you'll be walking away having more fun than you thought.  Just like Isabella Moner's portrayal of Dora, this movie is just kind of impossible to resist.

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