Director: James Bobin
Writers: Nicholas Stoller (screenplay by), Matthew Robinson (screenplay by)
Stars: Isabela Merced, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Peña
In the real world, I’ve been a middle school teacher for over 20 years, making me deserving of the Medal of Honour. My chosen field of professional masochism is also why I continue to play the lottery for investment purposes.
Middle schoolers are an eclectic – and exhausting – batch of younglings to spend your days around. Some still play with Legos, others are twerking at school dances and a great number of them consider professional YouTubing to be a viable career option, so there’s no need to master such trifles as composing a coherent sentence. One thing they all share, however, is a general disdain for the past, including their own. What was once shiny and new generally expires faster than raw chicken, destined to be shunned and ridiculed once they’ve “outgrown” it.
This is especially true of children’s entertainment. A program like Dora the Explorer may have educated & engaged them just a few short years ago, but now it’s stupid, cheesy and poorly made. Being inherently egocentric, they’re no longer able to view it in the context of its intended audience. It doesn’t occur to most of them that Dora the Explorer is a no-longer a party they’re invited to.
But Dora and the Lost City of Gold actually does extend that invitation, welcoming back anyone who grew-up on the show, as well as parents who endured it during their kids’ preschool years. A live-action update of the long-running Nick Jr., program, the film is created to appeal to more than an audience of toddlers. What’s truly surprising is how successfully it manages to do that, making it one of the better family films of the year.
When not questioning my life choices (to quote one of Dora’s amusing throw-away lines, uttered by a teacher, of course), I write about movies and have been permitted the opportunity to parlay that love into teaching two periods of a writing class called Film Studies, where we watch, discuss and review films from various eras and genres. Each class consists of 35 seventh and eighth graders. Since Dora and the Lost City of Gold is several decades closer to their demographic than mine, I thought it would be interesting to show it to them and observe their reactions. And indeed it was.
Nearly all of them avoided it in theatres because…well, it’s Dora. In fact, when I announced it as our next film, I was greeted with more than the usual amount of groans. A few kids even asked if I was serious. Since it was likely most of them hadn’t willingly watched the show in years, we began with an old episode, during which time they jeered and made sorry attempts at MST3K-like shout-outs. They mockingly sang-along with the songs and generally had a good time at poor Dora’s expense, repeatedly quipping how dumb she was by breaking the fourth wall to ask the audience for help finding objects when all she had to do was turn around.
But a funny thing happened when we started watching the film itself. Though both classes were prepared by resume their cavalcade of crass comments, Dora and the Lost City of Gold kept beating them to the punch, poking fun at its own basic concept with unexpected self-awareness. The story itself has Dora (Isabela Moner), now 16 years old and sent to live with her aunt & uncle (and Diego, of course) while Mom and Dad search for Parapata, a mythic Incan city. She’s never been out of the jungle or around kids her own age, nor has she changed one whit since she was six. She’s basically a fist-out-of-water, to the amusement of her peers and Diego’s embarrassment. These scenes are genuinely funny without being cynical or mean-spirited.
Of course, no Dora film is complete without an adventure. In this case, she, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and two school acquaintances are kidnapped by a trio of mercenaries who also seek Parapata and need Dora’s map. Much of it plays like a kid-friendly Indiana Jones adventure and, while not quite as fresh as the first act, is fun, surprising and frequently very amusing, with a lot of clever dialogue (some of which flew over the heads of my students). Moner is note-perfect as Dora (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard her sing the “Poop Song”), though the whole cast (especially Michael Pena & Eugenio Derbez) have their share of great moments. Ironically, only the infrequent – and terribly-animated – appearances of Boots and Swiper remind us of the film’s kiddie show origins.
Watching the class during the film, there was a noticeable shift in their overall attitude. Since the schedule forced us to watch it over three class periods, the groans instead came from being forced to wait until the next day to continue. With the exception of those too-cool-for-school kids required to hate everything, the response to the film was overwhelmingly positive, many of whom admitted it was a lot better than they were expecting. This the first “meta” movie most of them have ever seen and they thoroughly appreciated those aspects of it.
Like the students in my film class, Dora and the Lost City of Gold wasn’t at-all what I expected. It’s fast, silly fun and continuously inventive, amusingly self-aware while still holding reverence for its origins. One would have to be hopelessly cynical – or a perpetually angry seventh grader – not to play along.