If kids have to grow up, why shouldn’t the characters they watched when they were little? That question, and the need for Paramount and Nickelodeon to roll over a lucrative franchise — can you say “intellectual property”? — is why we have “Dora and the Lost City of Gold.”
Thankfully, the powers that be picked director James Bobin, who performed similar synergistic magic upgrading “The Muppets,” to bring Nickelodeon’s plucky bilingual adventurer Dora the Explorer into her teen years with the right mix of earnest naivete and knowing irony.
After a prologue in which six-year-old Dora (Madelyn Miranda) frolics in the jungle with her cousin Diego (Malachi Barton) before he moves to the big city, a 16-year-old Dora appears, in the perky form of Isabela Moner (“instant Family,” “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”). Dora still swings through the jungle in her pink T-shirt and orange shorts, marveling at the wonders of nature, only this time creating her own vlog. Most importantly, the movie establishes that some aspects of Dora’s adventures — like her friend Boots, a talking monkey — are purely in her fertile imagination.
Dora’s parents (Eva Longoria and Michael Peña) are archaeology professors, on the verge of making a major discovery: An ancient city, Parapata, that stores a pile of Incan gold. The real treasure, Dad reminds Dora, isn’t riches but the satisfaction of expanding human knowledge. “We’re explorers, Dora, not treasure hunters,” Dad says.
But they’re also worried parents, so for this expedition, they’ve decided not to take Dora along. Instead, she’ll go to the city — Los Angeles — to stay with a 17-year-old Diego (Jeff Wahlberg, nephew of Mark and Donnie) lives, trying to survive the living hell that is high school.
Dora’s outgoing attitude, vast home-schooled knowledge and backpack full of jungle survival gear make her stand out in high school. She quickly gains an enemy in Sammy (Madeleine Madden), the honor roll mean girl, and an admirer in nerdy Randy (Nicholas Coombe). On a field trip to the natural history museum, Dora, Diego, Sammy and Randy become unwilling partners on a scavenger hunt — and, when treasure hunters kidnap them, the foursome find themselves in the jungle, searching for Dora’s missing parents. Another explorer, Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), also factors into the search.
Screenwriters Matthew Robinson (“The Invention of Lying”) and Nicholas Stoller (“The Muppets,” “Muppets Most Wanted”) make it clear early on that they know this is a movie — specifically, a “Dora” movie. The kids know that jungle mazes only happen in “Indiana Jones” movies, even when they’re forced to survive one. When Dora and Diego get a whiff of hallucinogenic spores, of course their acid trip references the original “Dora the Explorer.” And when Dora’s animal acquaintances speak, of course it’s with the voices of Danny Trejo and Benicio Del Toro.
Where the writers provide the winking irony, it’s Moner’s plucky Dora who provides the charming innocence. Moner’s Dora dives into every adventure, from the perils of the jungle to the social minefield of the American high school, and brightens the mood wherever she goes. Moner makes “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” a real treasure.
‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’
Opens Friday, August 9, in theaters everywhere. Rated PG for some action and impolite humor. Running time: 102 minutes.