I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Ah, the calculations that go into how a movie lover will feel about a movie before said movie lover sees said movie! To know a lot, or to know not much at all? It’s a conundrum and a matter of debate among serious film fans. I tend to fall on the side of “Know as little as possible about a movie before you see it,” and Dora and the Lost City of Gold has now reinforced that contention, though not for any really good reasons. Alas.
I mean: I knew nothing about Dora and the Lost City of Gold before I went into it except that it’s a live-action adaptation of a kiddie cartoon, Dora the Explorer, that I’d never seen, because it wasn’t created until I was already long into adulthood, because I have no children of my own with whom I might have watched, and because it was never one of those grownup-skewing toons that might have exerted some pull on me anyway. I loved that it was an educational show centering a smart Latina girl, of course, and I loved that kids — boys as well as girls — seemed to love it, particularly when the bullshit Conventional Wisdom is that boys are not interested in stories about girls. But I was never going to be in even its most generous notion of its perceived audience.
But I saw Lost City anyway, because I’m not only a movie lover but a professional critic, and I like to see as many movies as I possibly can. Not only for my own enjoyment — I always hope to be delighted by a movie that I wasn’t expecting much from — but also so that I can understand and appreciate the current film environment as best I can. Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by Lost City. But I would have been enormously more disappointed if I’d had more information in advance.
Because look: Lost City is directed by James Bobin, who directed the marvelous retro kiddie reboots that are The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted (though he also directed the atrocious Alice Through the Looking Glass). It’s cowritten by Muppets rebooter Nicholas Stoller (though also cowritten by Matthew Robinson, of Monster Trucks infamy). If I’d known that this Dora was from these Muppet guys, my hopes would have been very high indeed. And consequently I’d have been much more disappointed than I ended up being.
Raiders of the Lost Ark lite for kids? That’s what Lost City is, mostly, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is that it takes Lost City a solid 35 minutes to figure out that this is the kind of movie it is going to be. Before it settles on Indiana Jones–ish action drama, the movie indulges a long, pointless detour with the now teenaged Dora as she is exiled from her beloved South American jungle home — and her homeschooled lifestyle — and forced to attend public high school in Los Angeles, where she does not fit in at all, what with her buoyant enthusiasm for the natural world, her irrepressible cheeriness, and her dedication to being her own wonderfully weird and unique self.
This live-action, teen Dora is really cool — and Isabela Moner is absolutely adorable as Dora — and she’s a great role model for girls and boys alike. And it is beyond gratifying to see a teen girl onscreen who isn’t sexualized. I just wish her movie was better than it is. Why was it deemed necessary to subject her to catty adolescent abuse by her unworthy peers? It renders her as ridiculous when she is precisely the opposite.
There would seem to be almost no reason at all — either contextually or in a meta sense — for the detour, except for Dora to collect a coterie of city-kid hangers-on… whom neither she nor the story need. As the overly convoluted plot takes her back to the jungle to rescue her explorer parents (the splendid pair of Michael Peña [The Mule, 12 Strong] and Eva Longoria [Dog Days, Lowriders]) from treasure-hunter kidnappers also bent on finding the fabled lost Incan city her parents are seeking, Dora and the story are nothing but weighted down by stick-up-her-butt school queen bee Sammy (Madeleine Madden: Around the Block, Mystery Road) and doofus loser Randy (Nicholas Coombe: Midnight Sun), inexplicably along for the ride. (This is no reflection on the young actors, who are fine. The movie is simply too crammed with unneeded characters.) As a foil for spunky, sparky Dora, her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg), would have sufficed. Why not just have him come for a jungle visit before he and Dora get swept up in intrigue and adventure? I fear the presence of Sammy and Randy is merely to offer some chaste adolescent romantic potential for Dora and Diego… as if that’s essential in such a tale, and Dora and Diego could not exist in the narrative merely as platonic relative-friends.
But even once Lost City settles into itself, it has little interest in appealing to anyone beyond its ready-made grade-school audience. Poop and fart jokes and kiddie-style slapstick are the “highlights” of the “humor,” and weird editing and lazy continuity abound, the sort of stuff that drives a grownup viewer to distraction, though kids may not notice, or care. The Indiana Jones stuff ends up feeling actively derivative; I think one vital music cue is actually lifted intact from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But I was myself 11 years old — pretty much smack in the range of Dora’s target audience — when Raiders of the Lost Ark was first released, and it captured my imagination just fine. Lost City could have been a lot sharper and a lot smarter and still captured kiddie imaginations perfectly well.