Sunday, August 11, 2019

Call of the Child: DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

There has been no 2019 summer blockbuster more satisfying that Dora and the Lost City of Gold. A live-action remake of the nearly twenty-year-old Nickelodeon show aimed at toddlers who followed Dora as she explored the rainforest with a monkey, a backpack, and a map, the movie is a bright, sweet, funny adventure romp pitched squarely at the 8- to 10-year-old crowd and those who can access their memories of what it meant to enjoy a movie like this then. Like with his great Muppet movies, director James Bobin approaches the film at the exact right level of heartfelt excitement, giddy about making a movie of such gleaming all-ages enthusiasms. It starts with Dora as a precocious six-year-old tromping through her wild yard while her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Pena) are hard at work looking for a mythical long-lost Incan city of gold. The movie starts on such a likable note, the camera swooping toward their lakeside home in the middle of the rainforest, the instantly recognizable girl — a big grin, a tidy mop of bangs, a pink t-shirt, and orange shorts — waving and smiling as the camera approaches. “C’mon!” she shouts as she dashes off with giddy enthusiasm, her imagination-filled playtime roughly equivalent to the original show’s childlike whimsy. We skip ahead ten years and Dora (now Isabela Moner, who, on the strength of this and her megawatt charm in Instant Family and Transformers 5, should be a huge star) is sent to California to live with her teen cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and his family in order to learn how to be around kids her own age in a city far from the wilderness. Her parents mean well. Although Dora is self-sufficient, boundlessly energetic, and hugely knowledgeable about the natural world, they don’t want to raise her to be comfortable only with a solitary jungle life. Besides, they’re finally off to the city of gold and don’t need her following along on this dangerous quest. The movie becomes a sunny fish-out-of-water comedy for a while as Dora’s plucky enthusiasm clashes with the surly teens in California High. (Moner is as good at this role as Amy Adams was in Enchanted.) They are instantly suspicious of someone so earnestly kind, obviously passionate, and genuinely guileless.

The kid-sized Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones plot kicks off when a treasure hunter (Temuera Morrison) kidnaps Dora, Diego, and a couple classmates from a school trip. They end up in the middle of the jungle, rescued by a bumbling archeologist (Eugenio Derbez) who says Dora’s parents are in trouble. So it’s a race to the city of gold through ancient ruins, quicksand, angry tribal archers, deadly animals, dangerous plants, and all the expected obstacles of such a story. Along the way, Dora is able to use her wits and her relentless positivity to help get her family and frenemies out of these jams. It has all the appeal of a bouncy adventure movie, and a core safe kindness that makes it totally kid-friendly. Best of all, it never takes Dora’s child’s-eye excitement as a joke. Though it contrasts her with the moody teens, and she’s at first a source of embarrassment for her city cousin, she’s not unaware of these differences. They laugh at you, Diego tells her. “I know. I’m not stupid,” she says, going on to insist that she simply has to be herself, the kind of girl who’d go to the school dance asked to “dress as your favorite star” and come encased in a giant cloth sun, and who’d grin and wave and say “we did it” to her classmates at the end of the school day. That this plays as generosity, a soft character moment in the middle of a jaunty adventure rather than didactic sloganeering, is all for the better. There’s a warm affection for her energy, and for the original show. Somehow it even manages to include a dash of fantasy, as one of the villain’s henchmen is a sparingly deployed masked talking fox named Swiper (Benicio del Toro) who steps straight out of the cartoon with only a bit of bristling fur realism to sell the silliness in this heightened version of our world. The whole production is animated by a love for its cute character and her world, cheerfully taking her cues to enjoy its every moment with a verve and a warmly funny spirit. After a long, dismal summer of failed big budget spectacles (and even the rare good ones, like John Wick 3 and Godzilla: King of the Monsters were on the grim side), it’s nice to be reminded that a movie like this can make you grin from ear to ear for 100 minutes straight, and leave you walking out happier than when you walked in. It’s a true delight.

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