Okay first off that’s not Dora. That’s what happens when photoshop googles ‘absinthe’. It’s a shame any time that sort of crime against cinematography and facial structure happens but double so with a movie like this. This? is Dora.
And this is one of the best movies not enough people will see this year. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is immensely fun, right from the animated opening sequence. Directed by James Bobin, from a script by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson it’s wonderfully light on its feet, knowing without being smug and intensely good-hearted. It’s also a whip smart adaptation, jumping ahead ten years as Dora Márquez (Played first by Madelyn Miranda and then by Isabela Moner) finds herself in a very different kind of jungle. Endlessly practical, up beat and smart, Dora is ill equipped for high school but off she’s packed while her parents (Michael Peña and Eva Longoria having so much fun I want to see a Thin Man do over with them) go searching for a lost city of gold. One Dora is also soon on the trail of, with some very reluctant companions…
The genius of Dora lies in three different elements. The first, brought aboard by the Muppets veterans in the production staff no doubt, is the film’s simultaneously gentle and subversive sense of humor. Dora talks to camera like she did on the show, but no one else does. The fourth wall break is made funnier, made at all in fact, by the way other people react to it. Coupled with the two lovely returns to animation, it also gives the movie a tone closer to the Muppets or Dangermouse than anything else and that is high praise.
But the script isn’t just a joke parade and that’s why it really works. It would have been so easy for this to be a yukfest or a stereotypical ‘country girl goes to the big city and makes mistakes’ movie. Those elements are there but they’re tempered and focused through an unusually clear-eyed look at what it’s like to be a smart, nice, invisible (Or at times all too visible) kid. Moner does startlingly good leading work here and there’s a lovely scene with her and her Abuelita (Adriana Barraza ) that makes it clear Dora knows she’s…off. But she also knows this is who she is and that means she has the strength, and determination, to keep forging her own path. I could have used this movie growing up. Hell, I could have used this movie a few weeks ago. The emotional resonance isn’t blunted by the age certificate. If anything, it’s sharpened. Likewise the emphatic but never didactic way it explores the difference between explorers and treasure hunters and the impact of colonialism. Also the jokes are REALLY good.
As are the cast. Jeff Wahlberg as the older Diego is fantastic, exuding that skin-crawling embarrassment teens feel at everything everywhere forever beautifully. He’s also got a nice line in laconic humor and does an excellent job of showing us the young man Diego’s become and the adventurous little boy that he still is. But the movie’s hidden treasure (Which, thankfully is not behind jungle puzzles), comes in the form of Randy (Nicholas Coombe) and Sammy (Madeleine Madden). The first is a completely without front, and really sweet, nerd kid that naturally gravitates towards Dora’s circle of not-quite friends. Coombe has a softly spoken manner to him that quietly blossoms as the movie goes on and he gets a surprising chunk of the best lines in the third act. If Dora’s arc is learning to live in both worlds, Randy’s is learning that sometimes, just sometimes, movies don’t lie to him and the unalloyed joy he feels at that is deeply lovely to see.
Sammy, played by Madden, is the emotional hinge of the film. An honors student she’s instantly threatened by Dora, who in return, defaults to ‘Hi friend!’ as she does with everyone. The way the two slowly meet in the middle is delicately and convincingly explored, as Sammy slowly realizes that Dora is no threat and Dora slowly realizes Sammy sees things she doesn’t. It’s a female rivalry (Admittedly one only one side notices) that resolves without drama or fake angst and gives both the intensely competent, interesting characters involved strengths and weaknesses. Or, to put it another way:
Dora and the Lost City of Gold has vastly better written female characters than the vast majority of any given year’s worth of blockbuster releases.
Plus a talking fox.
And briefly a talking monkey.
In YOUR face, Downton Abbey.
There are weak spots, there always are. One character I’ve carefully not written about is scripted and played in needlessly broad strokes and Temeura Morrison is ridiculously under used. But if you get past that, and you will, there’s a massive amount to see here. Some great performances, a wry, lightly anarchic script and some beautiful cinematography from Javier Aguirresarobe give the movie a unique and deeply pleasing style. Overlooked? Probably. But definitely worth exploring to find.
Dora and the Lost City of Gold is out now. Trust me it’s worth it.