They’ve gone and done it. They made a movie out of Dora the Explorer. When the trailer for a movie premieres at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, it’s usually a good sign that you don’t have to bother. Dora and the Lost City of Gold boasts a curious collection of filmmakers, though—director James Bobin was one of the minds behind Flight of the Conchords, a brilliant musical comedy; and screenwriter Nicholas Stoller worked on R-rated fare like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors. Those aren’t exactly Kids’ Choice Awards caliber.
Rest assured, parents, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is very much a kids’ movie. After growing up in the jungles of South America, Dora is now a precocious teenager, and she’s facing her biggest challenge yet: moving to the U.S. for high school. Her relocation comes much to the chagrin of her cousin Diego, who moved to the states much earlier and fears that the extroverted Dora will ruin his reputation. After some wacky high school hijinks, Dora, Diego, and two of their classmates end up back in South America, tracking down Dora’s missing parents and a lost Inca civilization.
The core elements of the movie’s narrative—story beats, character arcs, and conflicts—are as lackluster as you can get. Unless this is your first movie, there’s nothing there that you haven’t seen a thousand times before. But don’t count Dora out yet: the strength of the movie’s trimmings makes it more than the sum of its parts.
First and foremost, the movie’s really, surprisingly funny. The experienced comedians behind the camera didn’t sleep through their jobs. Dora ping-pongs between three types of humor: lowbrow, highbrow, and self-deprecating. The contrasts can be kind of disorienting—one second there’s an extended fart joke, the next, Dora is one-upping her classmates by explaining how Moby Dick’s whale hunting serves as an allegory for the reification of Western dispossession of indigenous lands and peoples (that’s almost word for word). The different styles of humor feel practically schizophrenic, but I can’t deny that there are jokes for every possible audience, and that most of them earn their laughs.
The self-deprecating humor is simultaneously the funniest and the sweetest. The movie lampoons itself by emphasizing how ridiculous Dora’s behavior is in a realistic setting, essentially playing her as the foil in a world of straight men. But even in the face of ridicule and adversity, Dora never loses her unstoppable optimism, which increasingly becomes the winning aspect of her character—especially thanks to a knockout, all-cards-on-the-table performance from Isabela Moner. The movie’s authentic enthusiasm is enough to melt the coldest hearts.
Dora also never loses sight of its Latinx heritage. The mini-Spanish lessons have survived the leap to the big screen, but even more edifying is the movie’s firm stance against imperialism. Dora is portrayed as an anti-Indiana Jones: not a treasure hunter who steals on behalf of the West, but an explorer who learns from other cultures and leaves their artifacts intact. The movie honors cultural diversity at every turn, even down to its choice of extras—you’ll find all colors and creeds milling about in the background.
Still, there are some regressive tropes that feel at odds with the movie’s open-mindedness, such as the inclusion of two smart girls who have to become intellectual adversaries. Shows like Hilda have demonstrated that children’s entertainment is perfectly capable of not pitting smart women against each other. As diverse as Dora is, it probably could’ve used a few more women on the creative team.
But even if it doesn’t meet all of its lofty goals, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is far better than it had any right to be. Its idiosyncrasies spice up an otherwise contrived movie to the point of making it recommendable. Just try not to look too closely at the horrifyingly deformed CGI monkey.