My earliest exposure to Nickelodeon was confined to Nick Jr., their children’s programming channel. Turning the channel to Nick Jr. meant getting plenty of “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora the Explorer” and Face, the sentient Nick Jr. mascot and cartoon screen. Although “Blue’s Clues” has semi-recently slid its way back into pop culture relevance, and any kind of Face revival seems (tragically) unlikely, I feel the need to pivot everyone’s attention to a groundbreaking, seemingly unnoticed “Dora the Explorer”-related phenomenon that burst into the world in 2019: the live-action “Dora” adaptation “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” People don’t talk about this movie enough, and I would like to change that.
I saw “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” in theaters with my friend from high school. We have a long tradition of going to weekday matinees of movies that at least one of us is skeptical about. I can’t remember which one of us picked “Dora,” but I do know that we were both somewhat hesitant. We walked in with the lowest of expectations but were greeted with 102 minutes of entertaining adventure and, admittedly, excellent humor. We were the only teenagers in a theater full of kids and parents, and we were laughing harder than anyone else. It was, for us, an unexpected masterpiece.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” while based on the animated show, moves into a realm beyond Dora’s formulaic animated world. The film follows Dora (Isabela Merced, “Sweet Girl”), now 16, as she moves from her home in the Amazon jungle to the LA area to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, “Cherry”) — an iconic animated character in his own right. Having spent her entire life in the jungle raised by her (hilarious) archaeologist parents, Cole (Michael Peña, “Tom and Jerry”) and Elena (Eva Longoria, “Desperate Housewives”), Dora is brilliant, enthusiastic, curious and totally naïve. As expected, she has some trouble fitting into her new high school. But the film takes a turn when Dora is kidnapped by mercenaries — along with Diego and two of their classmates, Sammy (Madeleine Madden, “The Wheel of Time”) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe, “68 Whiskey”), who inadvertently end up in the box with Dora and are flown back to the South American jungle. Dora must lead her ragtag bunch through the jungle to find her parents, who have gone missing looking for Parapata, a fabled lost city built by the Incas.
What a plot, right? Because there are so many moving parts throughout “Dora,” it tends to pull from a number of different genres. It’s a comedy, but there’s a touch of high school identity crisis, and a touch of dramatic Indiana Jones-esque adventure. There’s also a, ahem, trippy scene where they get caught in a spore field — a scene that, frankly, has to be seen to be believed. And it ends with a musical number. There’s a lot going on.
The film has layers, different things that can be enjoyed by different audiences. Yes, there is a song about poop. Yes, there is a scene where Dora dances like various animals in a high school auditorium while dressed like the sun. But what personally caught me off guard about the film was how self-aware it is. The film is entirely aware of its roots as a children’s show and is aware of its position as a film meant to be enjoyable rather than life-changing. (I mean, I found it life-changing, but that’s just me.) Our first glimpse of teenage Dora shows her moving deftly through the jungle in her iconic pink shirt and orange shorts, naming species and pointing out wildlife. She points out a golden poison frog (whose skin is coated in a toxin that causes paralysis) on a branch, stares straight into the camera, and says, in the spirit of her younger animated counterpart, “Can you say severe neurotoxicity?”
This was the moment that “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” had me. This was the moment where, in that theater, I was completely sold on this movie. “Dora” was all-in on its premise and its source material, and I was all-in on “Dora.” And it only got better from there.
Part of what makes this movie work is that, even with the poop song, the themes of the film are shockingly strong. Dora’s parents initially send her to live with her cousin’s family because of an incident involving jumping across a ravine. As it turns out, even believing in yourself doesn’t alter the Earth’s pesky gravitational pull — a direct challenge, almost, to the animated show’s attitude toward danger. The film establishes real stakes and real danger: There is no illusion of invincibility the way that there is in the animated show. No one dies in the film, but between the armed mercenaries, natural hazards and ancient Incan booby traps, the threat of death is there. (Luckily for our mostly fearless crew, Dora also used to sit around and think about what to do about quicksand).
Within the external stakes, “Dora” also sets up effective internal stakes. At the heart of the film is the relationship and dynamic between Dora and Diego. Despite being best friends when they were young, ten years is a long time: Dora hasn’t changed at all, but Diego has. (You know how everyone becomes jaded and ashamed of themselves as soon as they hit middle school? Well, Dora never went to middle school, and Diego did.) While some of the other characters are a little one-dimensional, Diego and Dora are strong and complex, and their characters’ relationship reflects that. When they’re at the high school, Diego is terrified of how people think of him and is embarrassed by how unapologetic Dora is. In the jungle, though, the only thing that matters is their loyalty to each other, and the ability to have each other’s back.
It’s also worth noting that “Dora” feels legitimately modern and relevant when it comes to issues of representation and colonial history — a beautiful bonus when movies and TV shows try to crack jokes about “woke culture.” “Dora” is deliberate in its discussion of indigenous cultures. Jokes about colonization and the appropriation of indigenous cultures lends a light-hearted but genuine lens on some of the issues related to the rights of indigenous groups — issues that would certainly be important to Dora. Incan characters in the film speak Quechua, the native Incan language; the secret clues to getting past booby traps (yeah, yeah, work with me here) are written in quipu, an Inca system of communication using string and knots. These authentic details add a layer of conscientiousness that other adventure movies — “Indiana Jones” in particular comes to mind — tend to lack.
“Dora” was a certified box office success, and its 85% Rotten Tomatoes rating is evidence of its regard among critics. But even if it has the critical acclaim, and the star power — Benicio Del Toro (“The French Dispatch”) (an Oscar winner, I should note) voices Swiper, and it’s incredible — the timing of the film was strange in terms of finding its audience. This strange timing is how you end up with a theater full of kids and parents, and the only ones laughing hysterically are two 19-year-olds.
There’s a kind of math that can be done with revivals, especially revivals of kids’s shows, where you can try to wait until the original viewers are old enough to bring their own kids. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” didn’t do this. The jokes are best for people who watched the show, but the kids who grew up watching “Dora” were in their twenties: not quite old enough to have their own kids to bring to the movie, and too old to actually watch the movie on their own (unless you’re me). This may have been part of why “Dora” missed the mark, why people don’t talk about it as much as I think they should — the timing.
So hear me out: Watch “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” Revel in its jokes, in its self-awareness, in its adventure, in a perfect Danny Trejo cameo that I don’t want to spoil. What makes “Dora” such an incredible viewing experience is that you go in with few to no expectations, only to have them all shattered. You may still doubt me, but trust me: It’s an unexpected masterpiece, and it’s worth a try. Can you say “severe neurotoxicity?”
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.