James Bobin has previous when it comes to the art of blending self-referential wit and naive optimism in the rejuvenation of childhood classics. It stems from a cinematic career that was launched splendidly with 2011’s jovial The Muppets and survives Alice Through the Looking Glass to enjoy a delightful second wind in Dora and the Lost City of Gold. Based on the adventures of television toon phenomenon Dora the Explorer, the film catapults its heroine ten years into her future but retains the original thirst for knowledge. If Bobin’s take is too old for prior audience, that’s fine – they grew up.
As befits the exploratory nature of its lead, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a more narratively complex cousin to The Muppets. Structurally, it echoes Indiana Jones and Nancy Drew, with just a dash of Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Alongside live action heroes and villains, Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson’s script finds room for Dora’s simian amigo Boots and occasional fox foe Swiper (absurdly, here voiced by Benicio del Toro). Neither bare striking resemblance to real world animals but such is the film’s buoyantly surreal tone. Frequently charm is drawn from the contrast of Dora’s innocent cheese to the cold wall of real life. Never has the coming of age staple of the American high school met quite so literal comparison to the jungle as here.
It is in the actual jungle that the film opens. A young Dora Márquez (Madelyn Miranda) swings through her Amazonian playground – very much akin to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli – in a handmade truck with childhood friend Diego (Malachi Barton) in tow. Her twee educational asides, taken from the TV show, see her tear apart the fourth wall – ‘Can you say severe neuro toxicity?’ – but parents Cole and Elena (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) are confident she’ll grow out of it.
When, ten years later, Dora’s casual disregard for rational reservation reveals this not to be the case, however, her parents decide its high time she hits the city for some time at the school of life. This as they set off in search of Parapeta, the long lost Incan city of the film’s title. Frothy that Bobin’s film is, a post colonial impetus pervades. The Márquez family are not treasure hunters but explorers and overflow with goodnatured respect.
As does the film, of course. Easy that it is to imagine Hollywood of yesteryear recasting Dora as white to the core, Peruvian American Isabela Moner is a dream in the role, bringing hitherto unseen charisma to the beloved character’s ingenue scholarship. Around Moner, too, widely diverse casting pays dividends. Continuing his US transition with flair, Eugenio Derbez brings a plate full of ham to proceedings, and there’s touching teen romance in the form of Jeff Wahlberg and Madeline Madden. The sense that all involved had fun in the making of the film is infectious and it’s easy to imagine a future for Dora’s explorers in sequels down the line. Certainly, a final twist by Dora hints of more to see and learn.
Not that the film is exactly the finished article itself. A mid-act animated sequence doesn’t quite land as intended and there’s confusion at times in the line between fact and fiction. Leaps from scene to scene are sketchy and logic – even in the magical context of Dora’s world – sometimes misses its cue. That said, it’s hard not to fall for Moner and her rousing company. The jokes – including, but not limited to, a song about pooing in the wild – land for both young and old, whilst the aesthetic never fails to please. Jungle Run fun is part and parcel.