Early on, Dora and the Lost City of Gold signals that it’s not going to be a straight-up live-action version of Dora the Explorer, the much-loved animated Nickelodeon TV series. Near her home in the Brazilian rainforest, Dora (Isabela Moner) points out a poison arrow frog, turns to the camera, and says, “Can you say ‘lethal neurotoxicity’?” Even before that, a younger version of her addresses the camera in a similar way, and her parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria) look around to see who she’s talking to. This sort of self-awareness hardly amounts to ground-breaking, but it at least makes the movie a different creature that adults will find easier on the palate.
Dora has spent her life living in the jungle with her archeologist parents, but her eccentric habits of bursting into song and addressing imaginary cameras are taken as a sign that she’s poorly socialized and needs to hang out with kids her own age. Thus, while her parents go chasing a lead about a lost Inca city in Peru, they send Dora to L.A. to attend high school with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg). However, she hasn’t even begun adjusting to life in the big city before she, Diego, and a couple of school friends (Madeleine Madden and Nicholas Coombe) are kidnapped on a school field trip and shipped back to South America by treasure hunters led by Swiper the fox (voiced by Benicio Del Toro) who are after Inca gold. The kids are rescued by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), a bumbling colleague of Dora’s parents who proves to be very little help as the kids flee further into the rainforest to try to beat the treasure hunters to the lost city.
James Bobin directed the previous two Muppets films, and while this does turn out better than Muppets Most Wanted, the deliberately hokey Goonies-level special effects aren’t as funny as they’re meant to be, nor does the story come to much of a point. The young cast is a bit flavorless, too. The better things about the film are around the edges, like a clever gag when the kids accidentally inhale some plant spores and start hallucinating. There’s only one scene in which Boots the monkey talks to Dora, and having Danny Trejo’s voice come out of the cute little creature is quite a good aural joke. That scene-stealer extraordinaire Peña gets a showpiece when Dora’s dad imitates the sound of techno music using just his voice. Even better is Derbez as a guy who imagines himself as a hardened, tough expedition leader and then panics when cobwebs get on his face. This Mexican comedy superstar has been trying to leave a mark for some time in American films, but this is the first one that truly shows him off to good advantage. If you are in possession of a small child who’s on fire to see Dora and her friends brought to life, all this talent makes the experience relatively pain-free and even good for a few laughs out loud.
Starring Isabela Moner and Eugenio Derbez. Directed by James Bobin. Written by Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller, based on Chris Gifford’s TV show. Rated PG.