Nickelodeon stalwart Dora the Explorer is great at teaching preschoolers about words and numbers, but she’s not exactly an exciting big-screen heroine. But Dora’s animated series has been on the air for nearly 20 years and has spawned numerous spin-offs, so like any modern corporate brand, she’s now required to headline her own movie. The filmmakers behind the live-action adventure Dora and the Lost City of Gold do their best to make this two-dimensional educational mascot into an actual human character, throwing in some self-aware jokes along the way. But Lost City struggles to balance its toddler-focused origins with the demands of blockbuster filmmaking, mostly landing in an awkward middle ground.
Director James Bobin previously brought beloved children’s characters to life in the most recent Muppets movies, and the script by Matthew Robinson and Bobin’s Muppets collaborator Nicholas Stoller has a bit of fun with the idea of Dora “teaching” the audience while other characters look on in bewilderment. Raised in the jungle of an unspecified South American country by her professor parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña), Dora (Isabela Moner) is smart, curious and relentlessly cheery, but she has no idea how to relate to anyone her own age. While the Dora of the TV series was 7 years old, here Dora is a teen, sent to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in Los Angeles while her parents are off searching for the mythical lost city of Parapata.
With her unflappable positivity and literal wide-eyed wonder at the world, Dora does not fit in at a modern high school, and she frequently embarrasses Diego with her enthusiasm for learning and lack of filter. It’s funny to see the Dora of the edutainment series transported directly into the body of an actual teenage girl, but too often Dora’s upbeat naïveté seems more like mild brain damage. The movie only spends a short time on this fish-out-of-water story, anyway, because soon Dora, Diego and two of their suburban classmates are back in the jungle, kidnapped by a group of mercenaries determined to seize the treasures of Parapata for themselves.
Helped by bumbling adventurer Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), Dora and her friends set out to rescue her parents, embarking on a low-rent version of an Indiana Jones story, through rudimentary ancient ruins that look like something out of Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. Along the way, they learn important lessons about friendship and pooping in the jungle, and while Moner is charming, there’s barely enough plot to keep even small children interested. Original series cartoon animal characters Boots the monkey and Swiper the masked fox (rendered via CGI) make for a poor fit with the adventure-movie approach, and while an animated dream sequence may push the right nostalgia buttons for older viewers who grew up with Dora, it feels mostly out of place with the rest of the movie.
Dora remains an appealing role model for young kids and a step forward for diversity in children’s entertainment, and Lost City is largely innocuous. It’s hard to see what audience it’s really serving, though. The original Dora is still on TV, helping kids learn Spanish and solve basic puzzles. This Dora traipses through the jungle but never ends up getting anywhere.