If, a year ago, one were to guess what bit of intellectual property would get a cinematic reboot next, odds are Dora the Explorer wouldn’t come to mind. But here we are.
“Dora and the Lost City of Gold” kicks off with a brief scene of its titular six-year-old heroine and her cousin Diego traversing the jungle — anthropomorphized backpack, map and blue-haired monkey in tow — singing along to a slightly modernized rendition of the theme song to the classic Nickelodeon cartoon. Then, in a flash, it’s all gone, and all that’s left is the two adventurous tykes “driving” a cardboard box painted to look like a Jeep.
It becomes quickly apparent that Dora, who has spent her entire upbringing with her professional explorer parents (Eva Longoria, Michael Peña) in the South American wild, harbors a vivid imagination, one that has breathed life into numerous adventures and characters like Isa the Iguana and Swiper the Fox. Her fantastical tendencies persist well beyond her early childhood — and Diego’s move to Los Angeles — as 16-year-old Dora (Isabela Moner) becomes an ambitious explorer in her own right.
But when her parents set out on a hazardous trek to locate a forgotten Incan city, they send Dora to live and attend high school with Diego, where Dora’s years of solitude begin to reveal how naïve and socially inept she really is. Still, it’s not long before she, her cousin and two other school misfits get roped into her parents’ expedition, forcing them to overcome personal biases and adolescent annoyances to face the many dangers that stand in their way.
For anyone past kindergarten age, this movie’s premise probably sounds like nightmare fuel. While innovative and educational, “Dora the Explorer,” in all of its iterations, has been a program exclusively for young children. Any reasonable person would have guessed that “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” would be just another in a cluster of kids’ movies that parents would dread sitting through for an hour and a half -- and would leave older siblings wishing they’d made other plans.
It’s not. While still clearly aimed at moviegoers under 10, this film has plenty of cleverness, laughs and even a few thrills to keep the rest of the family satisfied the whole way through. Bringing beloved cartoons into the real world is hardly a new concept, but instead of settling among the ranks of other insufferable adaptations — “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “The Smurfs,” to name a couple — Dora’s big-screen debut takes clear inspiration from adventure classics like “The Goonies” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” making for a taut, compelling and largely accessible experience.
Moner, a young performer who’s recently made waves in films like “Transformers: The Last Knight” and “Instant Family,” leans into her role as Dora fully and lovingly, bringing an undeniable likeability and maturity to the character’s many quirks and neon-bubble-gum fashion sense. Her relentless and sometimes blind optimism makes for some of the film’s sweetest moments, even when pitted against the typical adolescent gloom of her peers.
Speaking of whom, the rest of the cast makes the most of their time on-screen, especially the often over-the-top adult talents of Peña, Longoria and Eugenio Derbez. They keep the film finely balanced between humor and heart, and pass up no opportunity to wink at older audience members.
That said, the silliness of the film feels a little overdone at some times, and flat-out gratuitous at others. The cast’s unflappable wit and charm is more than enough to keep viewers satisfied; why we end up getting a couple of strange cartoon cameos that threaten the movie’s relative groundedness, I have no idea. And, just like any PG-rated flick desperate to get the little ones giggling, there’s no shortage of tiresome excretory humor.
Still, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” is far more enjoyable than it has any right to be. With a magnetic lead performance, an engaging storyline and plenty of things to smile at, this might take home the gold as this summer’s most pleasantly surprising movie.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and a founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.