New live-action 'Dora' features a more grown up explorer

Isabela Moner stars as the title character in the new live-action "Dora and the Lost City of Gold." 

It was a strange position for a parent to be in, practically begging my kids to go see a “Dora the Explorer” movie.

When my daughters were little, I gritted my teeth through every episode of the Nickelodeon series they were glued to — the repetitive plot, the simple animation, and above all, Dora’s annoying habit of constantly asking the viewer for help. “Look, it’s your show,” I’d seethe to Dora in my mind. “You figure out where the baby jaguar is.”

But I was curious about the new live-action “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” because it was made by the filmmakers who rebooted the Muppets so successfully, director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller. My daughters, now a teenager and a tween, consider themselves too cool for Dora. But after years of enduring “Dora" for their sake, I deserved this, and badgered the tween into going with me.

She probably won’t admit this, but we had a really fun time. Like with “The Muppets” and “Muppets Most Wanted,” Bobin and Stoller have figured out a way to affectionately wink at the audience about the Dora-verse while still celebrating its spirit. “Lost City of Gold” is bright, upbeat and zippy enough for kids, but the real target audience may be the parents who get the in-jokes sailing over the little ones’ heads.

The film begins much like the TV show, with a 6-year-old cheerful bounding through the rainforest, talking directly to the camera as she navigates all sorts of jungle dangers. (“This is a golden poison tree frog! Can YOU say ‘extreme neurotoxicity’?”)

Fast-forward a decade, and Dora is now a teenager (played by Isabelle Moner of “Instant Family”) who looks, sounds and acts exactly like that 6-year-old girl. She even sports the same bangs. Her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are about to embark on a dangerous expedition to find the fabled lost Incan city of Parapata, and ship Dora off to relatives to attend a regular American high school.

The first act of the film plays like Will Ferrell’s “Elf,” with Dora’s relentless positivity and curiosity clashing with the jaded cynicism of her classmates. Even Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), her cousin and former fellow kid explorer, has grown into a sullen teen, more “Sulk, Diego, Sulk!” than “Go, Diego, Go!” Moner navigates a tricky role perfectly here, getting laughs by playing the over-the-top spirit of the cartoon Dora while also making her a believable teenager, confused and hurt by not fitting in to this world.

Eventually, Dora, Diego and two other classmates — imperious class present Sammy (Madeline Madden) and class nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) — are kidnapped by mercenaries and sent back to the jungle. With a friend of her parents (Eugenio Derbez) along for the ride, Dora tries to find her missing parents and the city of Parapata before the mercs do.

Much of this plays like a brightly scrubbed homage to the “Indiana Jones” movies, as the teenagers encounter arrow-wielding tribesmen, quicksand and deadly “jungle puzzle” traps left behind by the Incans. The visual effects are never very convincing, perhaps by design, ensuring that even the littlest audience members won’t get too scared.

Through it all, Dora’s relentlessly upbeat attitude remains endearing, winning over her skeptical classmates and much of the audience. In a summer full of slavish live-action recreations of old animated movies, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” takes the heart of the original and makes something new and fun out of it.

Can YOU say “sequel”?

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.