Live action movie ‘Dora’ is both hilarious and self-aware.

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My first exposure to Nickelodeon was limited to Nick Jr., their children’s programming channel. Turning the channel to Nick Jr. meant getting plenty of “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora the Explorer,” and Face, Nick Jr.’s sentient mascot and the cartoon screen. Although “Blue’s Clues” has recently returned to pop culture and any type of Face revival seems (tragically) unlikely, I feel the need to pivot everyone’s attention to a groundbreaking “Dora the Explorer.” and seemingly unnoticed – related phenomenon that burst onto the world in 2019: the live-action adaptation of “Dora” “Dora and the Lost City of Gold”. People don’t talk about this movie enough, and I would like that to change.

I saw “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” at the cinema with my friend from high school. We have a long tradition of going to movie matinees on weekdays that at least one of us is skeptical of. I can’t remember which of us chose “Dora”, but I know we were both a little hesitant. We entered with the lowest of expectations, but were greeted with 102 minutes of entertaining adventure and, admittedly, excellent humor. We were the only teenagers in a theater full of kids and parents, and we laughed harder than anyone else. It was, for us, an unexpected masterpiece.

“Dora and the Lost City of Gold”, although based on the animated show, moves into a realm beyond Dora’s formulaic animated world. The film follows Dora (Isabela Merced, “Sweet Girl”), now 16, as she moves from her home in the Amazon jungle to the Los Angeles area to live with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, “Cherry “) – an iconic animated character in his own right. Having spent her entire life in the jungle raised by her (hilarious) archaeologist parents, Cole (Michael Peña, “Tom and Jerry”) and Elena (Eva Longoria, “Desperate Housewives”), Dora is bright, enthusiastic, curious and totally naive . As expected, she struggles to fit in at her new high school. But the film takes a turn when Dora is kidnapped by mercenaries – with Diego and two of their classmates, Sammy (Madeleine Madden, “The Wheel of Time”) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe, “68 Whiskey”), who end up by inadvertently ending up in the box with Dora and are sent back to the South American jungle. Dora must lead her ragtag group through the jungle to find her parents, who have gone missing in search of Parapata, a legendary lost city built by the Incas.

What a plot, right? Because there are so many moving parts in “Dora,” it tends to pull from a number of different genres. It’s a comedy, but there’s a touch of high school identity crisis and a touch of Indiana Jones-esque dramatic adventure. There’s also a, um, trippy scene where they get caught in a spore field – a scene that, frankly, has to be seen to be believed. And it ends with a musical number. There’s a lot going on.

The movie has layers, different things that can be enjoyed by different audiences. Yes, there is a song about poo. Yes, there is a scene where Dora dances like various animals in a high school auditorium while dressed as the sun. But what personally caught me off guard about the film is how self-aware it is. The film is very aware of its roots as a children’s show and is aware of its position as a film intended to be enjoyable rather than life changing. (I want to say, I Thought it was life changing, but that’s just me.) Our first glimpse of teenage Dora shows her deftly moving through the jungle in her signature pink shirt and orange shorts, naming species and pointing out the wildlife. She points to a golden poison frog (whose skin is coated with a toxin that causes paralysis) on a branch, looks straight into the camera, and says, in the spirit of her younger animated counterpart, “Can you say a severe neurotoxicity?”

It was the moment that “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” got me. It was the moment when, in this theater, I was completely sold on this film. “Dora” was all-in on its premise and source material, and I was all-in on “Dora.” And it only got better from there.

Part of what makes this movie work is that, even with the poo song, the themes of the movie are incredibly strong. Dora’s parents first sent her to live with her cousin’s family because of an incident involving jumping across a ravine. It turns out that even believing in yourself doesn’t alter Earth’s pesky gravitational pull – a direct challenge, almost, to the animated series’ attitude to danger. The movie sets real stakes and real dangers: There’s no illusion of invincibility like there is in the animated series. No one dies in the film, but between armed mercenaries, natural hazards and ancient Inca traps, the threat of death is there. (Fortunately for our mostly intrepid crew, Dora also used to sit and think about what to do with quicksand).

Within the external participations, “Dora” also sets up effective internal participations. At the heart of the film is the relationship and dynamic between Dora and Diego. Although they were best friends when they were young, ten years is a long time: Dora hasn’t changed at all, but Diego has. (You know how everyone gets jaded and shamed as soon as they get to college? Well, Dora never went to college, and Diego did.) While some of the other characters are a bit one-dimensional, Diego and Dora are strong and complex, and their characters’ relationship reflects that. When in high school, Diego is terrified of how people think of him and is embarrassed by Dora’s deadpan character. In the jungle, however, the only thing that matters is their loyalty to each other and the ability to support each other.

It’s also worth noting that “Dora” feels legitimately modern and relevant when it comes to issues of representation and colonial history – a nice bonus when movies and TV shows attempt to make “woke culture” jokes. “. “Dora” is deliberate in its discussion of indigenous cultures. Jokes about colonization and the appropriation of Indigenous cultures take a lighthearted but genuine look at some of the issues surrounding the rights of Indigenous groups – issues that would certainly be important to Dora. The film’s Inca characters speak Quechua, the native Inca language; the secret clues to circumvent the traps (yeah, yeah, work with me here) are written in quipu, an Incan communication system using string and knots. These authentic details add a layer of awareness that other adventure films — “Indiana Jones” in particular comes to mind — tend to lack.

“Dora” was a certified box office success, and its 85% Rotten Tomatoes rating is proof of its consideration among critics. But even though it has critical acclaim and star power – Benicio Del Toro (“The French Dispatch”) (an Oscar winner, I should note) voices Swiper, and it’s amazing – the movie’s moment was odd in terms of finding its audience. That weird moment is how you end up with a theater full of kids and parents, and the only ones laughing hysterically are two 19-year-olds.

There’s a kind of math that can be done with reruns, especially kids’ show reruns, where you can try to wait until the original viewers are old enough to bring in their own kids. “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” didn’t do that. The jokes are best for people who watched the show, but the kids who grew up watching “Dora” were in their twenties: not quite old enough to have their own kids to bring to the movie, and too old to watch the movie on their own (unless you’re me). Maybe that’s part of why “Dora” missed the mark, why people aren’t talking about it as much as I think they should – the timing.

So hear me out: watch “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.” Enjoy his jokes, his self-awareness, his adventure, a perfect Danny Trejo cameo that I don’t want to spoil. What makes “Dora” such an incredible viewing experience is that you enter with little to no expectations, only to see them all shattered. You may still doubt me, but trust me: it’s an unexpected masterpiece, and worth a try. Can you say “severe neurotoxicity?” »

Everyday Arts writer Kari Anderson can be reached at kariand@umich.edu.

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