Cinema Dispatch: Dora and the Lost City of Gold

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Dora and the Lost City of Gold and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by James Bobin

You know that they already did an aged up Dora series?  Sure she was only ten years old in that one instead of going to high school, but she moved to the city and made some human friends instead of talking to a monkey all day.  That’s… about all I know about Dora the Explorer outside of it being… a thing for a while there.  Well that’s a bit dismissive; it was actually a HUGE success for Nickelodeon and was broadcast worldwide in various languages, so I guess there HAS to be a market out there for more Dora stuff which is why we’re getting this film in the first place; though not as a straight up adaptation of the material but instead as a reimagining of the concept.  Less Spanish lessons and more Bowie knives if the trailer is anything to go by, which at least caught my and many others’ attention a few months ago.  Can this spin on the beloved children’s character become a cross generational hit that will keep Dora in the public consciousness for decades to come, or will this be as bad a miscalculation as that M Night version of The Last Airbender?  Let’s find out!!

Dora (Isabela Moner), whose last name has been lost to time, is your typical teenaged jungle explorer.  She has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that could kill her in there, she’s made friends with the native animals including a monkey named Boots, and she can apparently fall from great heights without breaking any of her bones!  Truly a Lara Croft in the making as long as she gets her gun permit, but her parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) have other plans for her.  See, they’re about to go on a trip to find THE LOST CITY OF PARAPATA (which is apparently full of gold), but instead of taking their highly competent and well trained daughter with them, they’re gonna send her to “the city” to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and attend the most fearsome jungle of them all; HIGH SCHOOL!!  Like most cartoon characters brought to life, her biggest problem is that she’s just too earnest for this cynical world which wants to sap all the idealism right out of her, but darn it she won’t be deterred!  She does end up being a bit of a laughing stock though for… being nice I think, and she’s ends up hanging out with the other nobodies at the school; her cousin Diego for some reason, the class president (Madeleine Madden) for some reason, and the local nerd (Nicholas Coombe) for pretty obvious reasons.  If only there was a way for her to show everyone that she’s ACTUALLY an awesome Indiana Jones knock off instead of some geek who likes to carry water purifies wherever she goes.  Well she gets her monkey’s paw wish when during a field trip she and her “not friends” all get captured by mercenaries who take her back to “The Jungle” and demand she help them find her parents who have gone missing in search of that city full of gold.  Fortunately a friend of her parents Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) springs them free and wants to help them find her parents, so now it’s a race against time as Dora and her not so enthusiastic explorers have to track down her parents before the team of mercenaries (including Swiper the Fox for some reason) can hunt them down, take the gold, and gut them all like fish.  Can Dora teach her friends to survive in such a harsh environment and gain their respect in the process?  Why did her parents go missing in the first place, and is the lost city gold so hard to find for a very good reason?  I wonder if this adventure will look good on their college applications…

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“If we can make it through this cave, we’ll finally be in Paraparta!”     “Good.  At least I’ll finally be able to afford Harvard after this.”     “We really shouldn’t take the gold.”     “And I really shouldn’t be paying fifty grand a semester, yet here we are!”

Today’s word is inconsistent!  Can YOU say inconsistent?  I really wasn’t expecting much of anything from a DORA THE EXPLORER movie, especially since the series was well past my time which leaves out the all-important Nostalgia Factor, but I can’t say it’s all THAT bad of a movie.  It’s just kind of bland which I guess is fine for me to feel about a movie aimed at a young audience (it’s based on a show for pre-schoolers for crying out loud), but what kind of both helps it AND hurts it at the same time is that it’s TRYING to be an edgier take on the material which sometimes means that there are subversive moments that genuinely bring the movie to life but then it’ll pull back completely and we’re back to something just playing it safe.  It’s a confusing mismatch of unclear priorities, inconsistent world building, and a budget that seems to go from scene to scene; all of which come together in a movie that I’m sure I would like more than a straight adaptation of the material, but made for a confusing and rather unfulfilling experience.

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“WHAT IS THIS YELLOW MONSTER THAT HAS CONSUMED MY BACKPACK!?”     “You know what?  Just for that, I’m not gonna let you go.”

I think the first big problem of this movie is that they decided to age Dora up to a high schooler instead of either as a younger kid (maybe middle school) or just going for it with her as an adult.  It’s not like it’s inherently a bad setting for this kind of story, but high school is a weird middle ground that a lot of really bad kid’s media tries to use to give something the veneer of older content without ever having to deliver on it.  High school IS a challenging time for a lot of people and there are genuine stories to be told, but this just wants to tease that idea without ever actually committing to it.  Michael Peña has a talk with Dora about going to parties in high school which DOES feel like an actual conversation you will want to have with a teenager, but instead of talking about boys, drugs, responsibility, or anything like that… he just talks about dubstep music?  Which is bad I guess?  I could honestly see them doing a decent job turning Dora into a proto-Tomb Raider type thing where you really lean into her love of adventure clashing against the mundanities of the rest of society, and there IS an element of that in here where she has to learn what it’s like to be around people, but because this is aimed at a young audience (at least SOME of the time), they can’t really go too far with it and so Dora’s arc in high school is about being mocked for her earnestness.  Instead of say trying to find adventures in the city by becoming an Urban Explorer, she wears a silly costume and dances like an elephant.  Again, if they wanted this to be aimed at kids than a younger character would have more appropriate challenges in her life instead of giving slight references to older problems and then just backing off of them.  Now I don’t want to come off like I WANTED them to do a Riverdale style NOT YOUR DADDY’S style reboot of the material, but they needed to pick a lane and stick with it and by moving the tone around so much it never really gets going with much momentum and the high school section of this movie feels utterly disposable because of it.

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She’s at school, but she brought a thing you DON’T bring to school!  WAA-WAA-WAAAAA!!

Once we get to the jungle in the second act it at least settles into more of a groove, but the inconsistencies are still there; just in a different form.  The characters are settled into their roles and the tone is somewhere around a particularly cheeky episode of Spongebob, but the narrative is where things start to break down somewhat as things just kind of happen and the world building gets muddled.  For example, Swiper the fox is in this movie and it’s VERY weird.  Now the movie takes great pains to portray Boots as an actual monkey, if somewhat exaggerated in his actions and his ability to understand situations, but Swiper?  The dude walks on his hind legs, he speaks English (voiced by Benicio del Toro in fact), and oh yeah, HE’S WORKING FOR MERCENARIES!!   Is this just… a THING that happens in this universe where SOME animals walk among us?  Did this outfit of presumably serious minded treasure hunters look at the fox in a bandit mask and think he was a perfect fit?  The other guys get machine guns, so does Swiper know how to use a weapon as well!?  I know I’m getting hung up on this, but it’s just so out of place with everything else in the movie that it calls attention to itself!  It’d be like if in the middle of Hobbs & Shaw we find out that Marvin the Martian is one of the henchmen.  He’s just in the background of a couple scenes not doing a whole lot, but you can’t ignore the fact that he’s there!!  Oh yeah, I mentioned Boots, didn’t I?  Yeah, this movie had a fifty million dollar budget, but they sure as heck didn’t use it rendering that monkey because he is TERRIBLE looking in every shot.  Not only that, there’s almost no continuity for him as he comes and goes between scenes and even between shots without any real rhyme or reason so it’s always a terrifying surprise whenever his creepy face shows up again.  Beyond that, the movie just kinda goes from scene to scene in their search for Dora’s parents, and there’s no real feeling of progress to it.  The scenes of jungle explorations don’t build upon each other as much as the feel like discrete and isolated moments (almost like stages in an old school video game), but I’ll certainly take it over the lackluster high school nonsense.

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KILL IT WITH FIRE!!

Now as much as I’ve kind of piled on about this movie’s failings, there is one moment that is ACTUALLY pretty brilliant and I was utterly shocked it was in this movie.  I don’t want to spoil it because it’s such a great surprise, but right around the end of the second act there’s about three minutes where the movie just GOES for it!  For all the halfhearted stabs at subversion and older humor, this is the one that works the best because it’s COMMITTED to the joke!  They don’t dance around the edges and pull back the moment a single eyebrow is raised; the scene feels complete in its execution and has some clever moments because of that.  The movie never really reaches that level of excellence again, but the third act is a BLATANT Last Crusade knockoff which I found rather fun to be honest.  I mean yeah it’s kind of hilarious just how much they steal from that film, but I’m sure MOST movies would be improved by taking a cue from that one and it gives the narrative a degree of focus that it didn’t have before.  So it’s a movie that does kind of get better as it goes along; especially as the goals become clearer and clearer in the narrative.  Other than that, I think the performances are… okay.  Isabela Moner as Dora is trying SO hard in this movie for material that really doesn’t deserve that kind of effort which I commend her for, but the other three teenagers including Jeff Wahlberg as Diego fall kind of flat.  Eugenio Derbez is fun as the befuddled adult in the group and has some great slapstick moments throughout which certainly kept me going, but Michael Peña and Eva Longoria as Dora’s parents are bland as well.  Again, almost nothing in this movie can be consistent; EVERYTHING has to have some degree of up and down.

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You know what?  At least it’s not CHIPS.

It’s not a BAD version of what it ultimately is, but you can tell that the filmmakers wanted more from it and were either unsure of how to get there or scared to really go for it.  In any case, as a kid’s movie it’s perfectly fine and has a few bright spots here and there.  For everyone else… well we’ve got that one scene that’s pretty great and an okay third act which is more than can be said about PLENTY of other movies aimed at children.  My frustrations are mostly from the point of view of someone WAY too old to be watching this and because of that I can pretty confidently say that it’s not worth seeing in theaters for anyone who isn’t bringing a kid along for the ride.  Now if they wanted to do a sequel and REALLY wanted to capture an older audience, a movie with just Dora and Alejandro solving mysteries and nearly getting killed would be pretty awesome, though at that point we might as well model it on The Rundown rather than a striped down Indiana Jones.  You think we could get The Rock in on that one?

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