'Dora and the Lost City of Gold' is a surprisingly entertaining — albeit almost too adult — kids movie

The film's mature perspective allows it to see both the humor and the promise in teens, who are suspended between the dreams of childhood and the abilities of adults.
Isabela Moner stars as Dora in "Dora and the Lost City of Gold."
Isabela Moner stars as Dora in "Dora and the Lost City of Gold."Vince Valitutti / Paramount Pictures
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By Noah Berlatsky

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is a kids film that is so hyperaware that it’s a kids film that it ends up feeling more sophisticated than the vast majority of action movies marketed to the middle-aged. This is a tribute to the movie's intelligence and it certainly makes “Dora” entertaining to watch. Such an adult sensibility also has its downsides, though. For all its inventiveness and joy, “Dora” can't quite muster the faith in young people that by all rights should be at the movie's core.

This is a tribute to the movie's intelligence and it certainly makes “Dora” entertaining to watch. Such an adult sensibility also has its downsides, though.

In outline, Dora is a fairly by-the-numbers young adult coming of age adventure. Dora (Isabela Moner) lives in the South American jungle with her anthropologist parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria). She's academically brilliant and completely at home in the rainforest. But her parents decide to send her to the city to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) while they search for Incan treasure. Dora's efforts to fit in at high school are interrupted when she, Diego, and a couple of other friends are kidnapped by mercenaries who want to blackmail her parents. Indiana Jones-esque adventures and personal growth for all follow.

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Dora is based on “Dora the Explorer,” a 2000s animated show for young children. And some of the funniest gags in the movie are clever shoutouts to the source material. Dora's parents tell her she can't put human clothing on her pet monkey, for example, and they worry about the way she occasionally turns to address an imaginary audience, both tropes common in the TV show. "Can you say neurotoxicity?" Dora guilelessly asks the viewers, while explaining the properties of an orange poison frog. There's even a fully animated segment; after being exposed to hallucinogens, Dora sees Diego with a disturbing cartoon head.

The movie isn't (just) putting ironic distance between itself and its source material, though. The central joke, and tension, of the film is that Dora is a kid's protagonist in a teen film. Having lived in the jungle by herself, with only an intelligent monkey for companionship, Dora's retains a six-year-old's unselfconsciousness and delight. In contrast, her cousin Diego, who used to live near her in the rainforest , has discovered that high school is more of a nightmarish struggle for survival than the jungle ever was. He cringes as Dora cheerfully introduces herself to the klutziest kid in school and watches in horror as she does a dorky peacock dance at a costume party.

Dora's wilderness survival skills don't work well in the city; the school guards confiscate her flares and her other equipment, and there's not much call to outrun a pygmy elephant in the hallway between classes. But her real oddness isn't one of location, but of age. Even when the kids are kidnapped and end up back in the jungle, Dora still comes often across as a big goofball, because she still comes across like she's six. When one of her friends needs to go to the bathroom, Dora doesn't just pull out a shovel to dig a pit; she launches into a cheerful song about digging poo pits. She's toilet trained, but at the same time, she somehow lacks the training to know how to talk (or not talk) about toilets.

Dora's parents decide to send their brilliant, passionate daughter away rather than let her pursue her dreams because they've decided that a boring, miserable high school experience will make her more normal.

Dora's parents decide to send their brilliant, passionate daughter away rather than let her pursue her dreams because they've decided that a boring, miserable high school experience will make her more normal. But the truth is they should have just let her go search for the city of gold she's trained her whole life to find. The movie is about how being a big dork is both inevitable and kind of awesome, and about how Dora's parents are wrong to try to make her conform to their idea of a normal child. She’s the hero of her story right now, not in the distant future when she “grows up.”

Unfortunately, the movie can’t quite commit fully to its nerdy hero premise. High school is presented as a pretty miserable experience, but it's also presented as the only way to find friends. As a result, Dora is eventually given the choice between pursuing her passion, like a child, or hanging out with other kids and potential romantic interests, like an adult. Her eventual decision is presented as a victory. But why does she have to make that decision at all? Is she the only brilliant anthropology geek on the planet? Why not fire up the internet and find some peers?

The movie’s adult perspective allows it to see both the humor and the promise in teens, who are suspended between the dreams of childhood and the abilities of adults. But that same mature perspective limits its faith in its protagonist. Kids Dora's age and younger win tennis matches at Wimbledon, advocate for better environmental policies and write some of the world's greatest poems. Dora's a remarkable kid, but she's not that remarkable. There are lots of young people who have great talent and do great things. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is grown-up enough to find that exhilarating. But it's also, unfortunately, a little too grown-up to trust it.