Making a live-action adaptation of Nickelodeon’s long-running animated series Dora the Explorer was always going to be a bit tricky. The award-winning show is a sweet one — and a major coup for Latino representation (especially when it started back in 2000) — but it’s still an unabashedly educational program starring a 7-year-old and watched by preschoolers.
Paramount thus had two main options when it decided to bring the Dora’s adventures to the big screen thus summer in Dora and the Lost City of Gold: 1) Drop some of the show’s stagier, wall-breaking, sing-song-y tendencies and lean hard into something of a Goonies vibe that’s a bit on the PG-13 side, or 2) embrace the show’s super-G-rated vibe and settle for the younger (and thus more limited) audience.
In the end, however, rather than fully committing in either direction, British director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, the most recent Muppets films) and screenwriters Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson decided to hedge their bets. The paper-thin action-adventure script they’ve turned in takes Dora and her friends from grade school to high school (fortunately dropping the character’s signature talking backpack), undoubtedly widening the movie’s commercial prospects and offering a bit of a Mean Girls meets Young Indiana Jones Chronicles feel.
The film’s failings hardly rest on the shoulders of its cast, however — especially not Isabela Moner, the actress who plays 17-year-old Dora Márquez. Moner (known for her work on Nickelodeon shows like 100 Things to Do Before High School) brings a cartoonish but fun wide-eyed innocence to the role, underlining the fish-out-of-water feeling of her homeschooled free-range character gets when she’s sent to Los Angeles to attend (the fictional) Silverlake High School and live with her tio, her tia, her abuela, and her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg — yes, of that Wahlberg family), while her parents set off to find a lost Incan city of gold called Parapata.
Like the similarly spirited Cady Heron before her, up to this point, she’s had a lifetime of adventure living with her globe-trotting professor parents, Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria), but she’s had little socialization with kids her own age. Entering the jungle that is high school, she thus quickly earns the ire of her grade’s resident know-it-all, Sammy (Australian actress Madeleine Madden), who sees Dora’s nerdy and unabashed love for learning as a personal threat, and embarrasses Diego with her penchant for breaking out into silly songs and dances. (Campus security is also none too thrilled about her arrival at school with a regular non-talking backpack full of survival supplies.)
Not that she spends too much time in Los Angeles outside of her comfort zone — a team of nefarious treasure hunters soon captures Dora and her friends and ships the teens off to Peru so she can help track down her parents (and thus the location of all that gold). The peril that awaits as they venture deeper and deeper into the wilds of the rainforest feel about as dangerous as those old Legends of the Hidden Temple challenges (how very Nickelodeon), and you can bet just about everyone learns their lesson in the end.
How anyone could see anything remotely sexual “throbbing unacknowledged beneath the surface” (thank you, Hollywood Reporter) of this aggressively tame, hyper-wholesome tale is beyond this reviewer. In fact, you could have told me Dora and her friends were middle schoolers and I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. Which leads me to wonder: Is there no happy medium between Dora and Euphoria, in terms of the way teens can be represented on screen in big-budget projects today?