“Dora the Explorer and the Lost City of Gold” is a new feature film. It is loosely based on an old Nickelodeon channel cartoon. The title character is a bilingual 7-year-old. She likes to explore.
So she and her talking backpack and her talking monkey friend Boots go off looking at things.
Sometimes they must solve riddles to get where they want to be. Sometimes they do little bits of PBS-style counting or work on language skills.
Sometimes they must call on the audience to help them stop a thieving fox named Swiper. All of these features have been carried forward into the film. But it occurs 10 years in the future so that Dora can be played as a teenager by the very talented and, considering her age, very experienced film star Isabela Moner.
The movie borrows something from “Beverly Hillbillies” (“Third Rock From the Sun” for you Gen Xers) as Dora moves to California. Her parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña — the cast is first rate) are academic archaeologists who have gone into the South American “rain forest” to try to find the lost city of Inca gold.
Bubbly, unselfconscious Dora embarrasses her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) by ignoring high school social codes. But then the two of them, the overbearing class president and a random loafer are all kidnapped and flown to Chile.
Their captors want Dora to lead them to her folks and, in this way, to the gold. But the quartet of teens is helped to escape by a nervy man who says he is a friend of Ma and Pa’s. Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez) goes with the kids into the jungle, where Dora soon picks up the trail.
We find out how much weight a monkey can carry and are asked to call out when the fox (voice by Benicio del Toro) appears. Boots is around. Her backpack speaks at least once. The kids find a couple of puzzles and solve them. Dora uses her butterfly yo-yo as a weapon. We learn how to escape from quicksand and how to evacuate our bowels in the forest.
The characters get wet. They get separated. They are waylaid by a witchy jungle woman. They wander into an enclosed bed of huge flowers which produce dust that causes the kids, Boots, and Alejandro to either turn into animated beings or causes them to share the group hallucination that they are cartoons.
Dora sings a couple of songs intended to help characters cope with their difficulties. They are all in a large hollow log that rolls downhill. They are watched by unseen guardians of the gold city. And they are again captured by their kidnappers.
The baddies need Dora’s help to solve a puzzle that will get them inside the city walls to the gold itself. And Mom and Dad are also captured. Dora will have plenty of chances to prove herself and the rightness of her cheery world view.
During almost all of this, Moner maintains the happy optimism of a 7-year-old. Sometimes the film has so many “Dora” references to fit in that it might seem random. But Moner’s performance keeps the whole thing together.
And her focus must have inspired the rest of the cast. Derbez, for example, can be bedraggled and mopey. Here he stays with his character, full of nervous energy even to the point of not being very triumphant when his character has the chance.
The screenplay does a good job of setting details up long before they are needed. Randy (Nicholas Coombe) claims early on to be able to hold his breath under water for seven minutes. This seems a self-deprecating bit of hyperbole— this is all the slacker can claim, and we don’t believe it.
But like most of the details in “Dora and the Lost City of Gold,” this one is going to prove to be important. And elementary school children and old Dora fans are going to enjoy watching how the preparation pays off.