Dora the Explorer was after my time, a cartoon for young children that came around long after my Saturday morning cartoon days were over. And yet, despite being one completely uninitiated and cynical thirty-something, I found Dora and the Lost City of Gold to be a charming delight. Aged up from the show, Dora’s now a teenager who has spent many of her formative years in the jungle with a pair of well-meaning archaeologist parents (Michael Pena, Eva Longoria). Thrust into high school in Los Angeles, she’s an odd duck and beacon of positivity amid the cynical squalor of American modernity. Suck out all pretension and she’s simply the smartest, kindest person in the room.
Isabella Moner is a bright-eyed, exuberant presence as Dora, always ready to sing or swing into a grand adventure. She has a big heart and an even bigger reservoir of tools and tricks to help her navigate the jungle and jungle puzzles that pose any danger to her and her friends. It’s refreshing how director James Bobin and writers refrain from turning her into Moron Exhibit A when surrounded by the relatively unknown perils of high school or adolescent social norms. Dora’s new to it but she’s no dummy. She’s full of spunk and surprise, but without the overdone naivete that often accompanies fish-out-of-water hijinks. What sets Lost City apart from other TV cartoon adaptations is a cute loyalty to the tone and wild abandon of its forebear, including characters who don’t immediately translate to live action. There’s a running, robbing, talking fox named Swiper who looks like he stepped out of a Fantastic Mr. Fox spin-off, and he’s voiced by Benicio Del Toro of all people. There’s even an extended sequence wherein psychedelic flowers plunge Dora and friends into a fully 2D animated state. Add in anthropomorphic monkey Boots and villainous performances pitched waaay over the top, and you’d be forgiven for forgetting this was a movie-movie from time to time.
Ultimately, this is a film aimed squarely at kids and tweens, however, it often feels like a throwback to a time when kiddie flicks weren’t all computer animation. Once upon a time, a sense of true adventure permeated these movies, and at some point between internet and smartphones the real-kids-on-a-quest genre went away. Dora is very much about a ragtag group of kids on a quest, finding treasure and themselves, and it’s all the better for it. Stay for a foot-tapping musical sequence during the end credits.