Jason Bailey: All right, Lucy, what movie did we go see?
Lucille Dryden Bailey: We went to go and see Dora and Boots.
JB: And what did you think of the movie?
LDB: I thought it was amazing,
JB: You thought it was amazing! Why did you think it was amazing?
LDB: Because I love adventures and I love hunting for treasure.
A bit of background here: Lucille is my almost-six-year-old daughter, and the movie we saw together was not, in fact, titled, Dora and Boots, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold. However, most kids have their own names for movies and TV shows, and as long as she’s been watching it (which is many years), Lucille has used the title Dora and Boots for Dora the Explorer, the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon problem-solving show which provides the inspiration for this new, live-action adaptation. And because she’s the target audience, and a bit of a Dora expert, I asked Lucille to accompany me to the press screening, and then we talked about the movie on the uptown A train on the way home.
JB: So tell me this: at the very beginning of the movie, Dora was a little girl like she is in the cartoons. But that was only at the beginning of the movie. And then she was a teenager, which is older than she was in the cartoons. Were you okay with that change? Or did you want the whole movie to be her when she was a little girl like on the cartoon?
LDB: I liked that.
JB: You did? Why did you like that?
LDB: Because she had a lot of friends. And also cartoons are very good to me, because they talk very funny.
True enough, but Dora and the Lost City of Gold pays proper respect to its source material, opening with a meticulous recreation of that never-changing opening title sequence, and continuing with a prologue of the Dora we know: adventurous, inquisitive, carting her familiar talking backpack, with pet monkey Boots and cousin Diego by her side as she roams the jungles near her remote, cabin home. But Diego is going to live in The City, so they bid each other a fond farewell (“’Till our next adventure, prima.” “’Till our next adventure, primo”) and off he goes.
Ten years pass. Dora’s professor/explorer parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) are heading off on an expedition to find the titular lost city, and they determine their teen daughter isn’t quite old enough yet for a dangerous mission, so they send her to reunite with Diego, stay with family, and go (for the first time) to public school. This is the most ingenious stroke of Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller’s clever screenplay: they make Dora a fish out of water, the home-schooled jungle kid trying to fit in and not embarrass her cousin, who’s become a wry, cynical L.A. teen. And she’s so relentlessly sweet and upbeat, she sticks out like a sore thumb in your modern high school setting.
JB: At the beginning of the movie, Dora went to Diego's school. And she was having some trouble at that school. Did you think those parts were funny?
JB: You didn't think it was funny when she was having trouble at school? Were you embarrassed for Dora?
JB: She was having trouble, wasn't she?
LDB: And when she went to the museum, one of the bad guys that was pretending to be a good guy made her go into the basement. And then the other two bad guys just made her be in a box with her other friends? And Diego too? And then she went to a place like to the airport? And then the bad guy friends was gonna make them go into a tractor to try and save them? And that's it. That's what happened at the beginning of the movie.
That, believe it or not, is pretty much your inciting action. Dora and friends are kidnapped by mercenaries, in the hopes that she’ll lead them to her parents - and all that gold. So from that point on, Dora is basically a pint-sized Indiana Jones picture, with generous helpings of The Goonies (and, at once point, a dash of Fitzcarraldo??) thrown in, so there are dangerous traps, brushes with death, and even a good old-fashioned quicksand sequence.
But it doesn’t take itself too seriously, thankfully - and unsurprisingly, as the director is James Bobin, who helmed the 2011 Muppets movie and its sequel (and Stoller also co-wrote those films). He gets a fair amount of comic juice out of adapting the show’s kid-cartoon devices into a real-world setting (her chipper “Hi! I’m Dora” show introduction sounds a little crazy when chirped at everyone she passes at LAX, or in the halls of her high school), and they go off in a few funny, loopy directions of their own (a pre-title message from “the Fox Council of America” assures us that the pilfering of chief antagonist Swiper the Fox is “a hurtful stereotype.”)
But none of this would work without the marvelous performance of Isabela Moner as Dora, who manages to tap into the character’s mix of energy and optimism without coming off as obnoxious, cartoonish, or oblivious; she’s wide-eyed, yes, but also matter-of-fact.
JB: What did you think of Dora?
LDB: She was so great and amazing. And she saves like everyone in the movie. And that is how she got home from the jungle.
JB: Wow, spoiler alert. And what other characters did you like in the movie?
LDB: Um, I liked her cousin Diego. And I liked her other friends. I don't know their names.
JB: What did you like about her cousin Diego?
LDB: Well, I didn't like him, and I did like him. Because the thing that, why I didn't like him, is because in the in the front of the movie, in the beginning of the movie, he was being mean to Dora. And at the end of the movie, he tried to save everyone.
JB: So he sort of went through a change in the movie and became a better person, huh?
JB: Do you like it in movies, when people do that?
LDB: Yeah. And also in the movie there was, there's a bad guy who's pretending to be a good guy.
JB: Oh, that's very tricky, isn't it?
Peña is the MVP of the supporting cast, putting a sharp spin on even his weakest lines, and clearly taking opportunities (as in the Ant-Man films) to just spin off and do his own great, gonzo thing.
JB: What did you think of Dora's parents?
LDB: They're great.
JB: Why did you think they were great?
LDB: Just because they're good parents.
JB: I also thought they were silly and funny. I liked how funny her daddy was. Do you like when daddies are funny?
LDB: Yes. And you are too!
JB: Oh, thank you, Lucille! That's so sweet of you to say.
(Apologies for fishing for a compliment there, but you gotta get them where you can at this age.)
I don’t mean to oversell Dora and the Lost City of Gold, which has its problems – the pace is a little draggy, there are few too many winking acknowledgments to the show’s devices (and eye-rolling reactions therein), and some fairly dodgy effects, particularly in the closing scenes. This certainly isn’t a “You don’t even have to have a kid to see it,” mid-Pixar sort of affair. But parents who take their kids to see it will enjoy the in-jokes and little nudges, and will have a far better time than at the likes of, say, your average skull-crushing Illumination Entertainment nightmare.
And, perhaps most important of all, it has a message that little kids just can’t hear enough:
JB: Okay, last question. One of the things that Dora says when she and Diego have their little fight that you were talking about, because she's sort of being embarrassing to him at school, and she says, "I have to be myself. That's all I know how to be." Do you think that's a good lesson for kids who watch this movie?
JB: Do you try to be yourself?
JB: I'm glad because you're great.
LDB: (Pointing at recorder) Okay, that's it.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is out Friday in wide release.