There’s a brief sequence in which this live-action, though heavily CGI, updating of the long-running “Dora the Explorer” TV series reverts to its 2D-animation roots —the characters have a passing hallucinatory experience, thanks to some strange pink jungle vegetation. For fans of the program it will serve as a cheerily nostalgic reminder of what once was, but it’s only a momentary blip in what’s (despite a substantial budget) otherwise a tame kidflick not appreciably better than the sort of thing regularly made nowadays for the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon (the latter of which, of course. is one of the producers, having made the series).
The screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson begins with a prologue featuring Dora (Madelyn Miranda) at her traditional age of seven, gamboling about the Peruvian forest with her cousin and best pal Diego (Malachi Barton). Unfortunately, Diego and his parents are about to leave for Los Angeles, while Dora will be left to explore along with her blue monkey Boots and her backpack, which is a silent partner here.
Ten years elapse, and Dora’s (now Isabela Moner) parents Elena and Cole (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) decide that she should now move to L.A. for high school while they search for a legendary lost city. In California her constant good spirits and peculiar ways make her an odd duck among the other students, embarrassing Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) to no end, and her academic brilliance irritates the class mean girl Sammy (Madeleine Madden). The only student who will have anything to do with her is dweeb outcast Randy (Nicholas Coombe). This part of the picture plays like standard-issue contemporary high school fare.
The real plot kicks in when Dora, Diego, Sammy and Randy are abducted while on a field trip, locked in shipping carton and flown back to South America. Happily they are rescued at the airport by Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), who introduces himself as a professor and friend of Dora’s parents and helps them escape to the jungle. Their abductors, he explains, are trying to locate Dora’s parents, who are on the verge of finding the city. They must get to them first. Luckily a CGI version of Boots shows up to help them out of scrapes along the way.
Thus begins a series of chases, escapes, and setbacks, among them episodes involving quicksand, underwater caverns, and a series of devices to protect the lost city from interlopers (as well as a major betrayal). None, however, comes across as truly dangerous or threatening; the bad-guys may glower and scowl, and the city’s mystical defenders are a stern lot, but there’s no real sense of menace to any of the obstacles that Dora and her companions must face and overcome.
In fact, the makers seem more interested in how the youngsters bond over the course of their journey. Sammy naturally mellows—one of those sequences involving poop that are inevitable in family movies nowadays plays a role in altering her standoffish attitude—and before it all ends she and Diego have become an item. In fact the movie closes with an ensemble dance that seems equally obligatory in such cable-ready fare: just think of “High School Musical.”
The leads all seem just a bit mature for the ages of their characters, but they’re a likable bunch overall, though, presumably encouraged by director James Bobin, Moner overdoes the enthusiasm. That’s hardly noticeable, however, as long as Derbez is around. He mugs so ferociously, with his bugged-out eyes, wacky banter and frantic slapstick, that he’s virtually a live-action cartoon figure. (Peña is a close second, though Longoria is much more reserved, as if in apology.) Speaking of which, the CGI Boots works nicely, though a similarly crafted version of the series’ Swiper the fox, here a part of the villainous crew, is less engaging.
On the technical side, production designer Dan Hennah goes for a garish look that accentuates the far-from-realistic sets, and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe opts for bright visuals that amplify that approach. Editor Mark Everson tries hard to keep things moving, though the result might have worked better at ninety minutes rather than more than a hundred; very young kids whom parents bring along with their tween siblings, at whom the movie is really pitched, might very well get restless. The score by John Debney and Germaine Franco is insistent, to say the least.
One of the points repeated made by Dora is that she and her parents, unlike the villains she faces, are not treasure hunters who want to steal artifacts and gold for their own profit, but explorers whose motives are altruistic. In a way the movie follows suit. Nice and inoffensive, it promotes good messages of friendship and respect for the past; but like “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase,” another updating of an iconic young heroine that appeared earlier this year, its good-natured blandness will probably not be enough to start the hoped-for franchise.
It will doubtless become a staple on the various Nick channels, though.