Nanna Day movies are chosen by consensus of Deb’s three grandchildren. I keep expecting the older kids to revolt at having to see movies aimed at the youngest common denominator, but big sister Bridie being away on a birthday trip to Melbourne to see the Harry Potter stage show, it was up to 10-year-old Jack to agree to a movie more likely to please 7-year-old little sister Piper. Very commendable of him, I thought, especially since he confided while we queued for popcorn that what he really wanted to see was Joker. Hell’s bells! Hope they haven’t got a budding angry Incel on their hands!
I knew nothing about Dora, except that she has a rhyming sobriquet – Dora The Explorer, and I guessed correctly that she was a very young TV cartoon character. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is the first live action Dora movie.
The kids filled me in on her backstory: she lives with her explorer parents in ‘the jungle’, having adventures with her cousin Diego and her blue monkey friend Boots.
When the movie story starts, 7-year-old Diego is about to be sent off to live with their extended Latino family in America and go to school there. They will miss each other, and they pledge eternal loyalty, but 6-year-old Dora is happy to stay in the jungle and follow in her parents’ footsteps.
Fast-forward ten years and 16-year-old Dora has found a clue to the whereabouts of the titular lost city of gold. Her parents have also sussed it out, but when Dora behaves recklessly and falls off a cliff they decree she’s not ready for the perils of big time exploring and must join Diego at school in America. She’s disappointed, but looks forward to seeing the family and especially cousin Diego.
So why is Diego not overjoyed to see her? Because with her sunny disposition and her lack of fashion sense she’s a bit of an embarrassment in this new urban jungle of high school, frankly. Dora barely notices; her ‘relentless positivity’ – an epithet hurled at her later in one of the movie’s few adult zingers – protects her from the teenage social pitfalls all about her: the mean girls, the macho posturing of the boys, the relentless quest for coolth.
This is where the movie is at its best, I think: using the fish-out-of-water trope to convey positive messages about body image, fashion obsession and self-worth. There’s a nice scene where, at the daily school entrance security check, Dora’s backpack is revealed to contain not the usual teenage girl beauty paraphernalia but an assortment of jungle survival equipment, to the exasperation of the security guard played by Aussie actor Damien Garvey.
But soon she and Diego are kidnapped and taken back to the jungle by baddies who want to use Dora’s exploring skills to help them find the lost city of gold. With them are two classmates, and the squad must now escape, thwart the baddies and find Dora’s missing parents.
From here on our young heroes deal with a succession of perils familiar from the matinee serials of my youth: quicksand, alligators, the flooding chamber, the lowering ceiling, the floor receding above a bed of spikes.
Whether it’s because of the tender years of the target demographic or because you’re just not allowed to frighten the snowflakes these days I’m not sure, but there’s very little fear or suspense to be had here. The perils are served up with clockwork regularity and dispensed likewise, usually with a savvy pop culture wisecrack.
At first I thought the Dora project must be a thoroughly latino one, since the hispanicity, if there’s such a word, of Dora’s family is a given and not even commented on. The actors who play her and her family are all Hispanics, including the Chilean-Australian actress, Pia Miller, who plays Diego’s mother, Dora’s aunt.
Which points to one of the more interesting aspects of the movie for Aussie adults, and that’s the preponderance of Australian talent among the cast. I was first alerted to this by Jack, who pointed out that he’d seen Madeleine Madden, one of the squad of four youthful heroes, on ABC Me.
Turns out she’s Charlie Perkins’ granddaughter, who had a role in Mystery Road among other Aussie productions, including as a presenter on BTN, the ABC kids’ news program. She plays Sammy, the mean girl who becomes a sweet thing after her shared adventure with Dora. Madden is actually 22, but she sounds every bit the American teen, with a flawless line in hand-splaying, eye-rolling OMG teenage hyperbole. Like, totally. But I suppose they all look and sound like that these days.
Young Aussie actor Nicholas Coombe is just as convincing as the nerdy white boy who becomes one of the kidnapped foursome. As well as these two lead characters, there are the two aforementioned Aussie cameos – Dora’s aunt and the school security officer – and there’s also one from the charming and accomplished Matt Okine, who has another of the film’s sly adult witticisms in his cameo as the teacher who takes the kids to the Natural History Museum from whence they are kidnapped.
It’s all down to Dora and the Lost City of Gold being a production of Aussie/Kiwi youth entertainment powerhouse Nickelodeon. There’s an early scene where Sammy hectors Dora with the assertion ‘The rainforests are dying!’ ‘Which ones?’ asks Dora, who goes on to win the point by listing a string of rainforests she knows all about, starting with the Daintree. My ears pricked up, but then I’m a baby boomer so I still get a teeny frisson of pride when Australian people and things turn up in American movies. No big deal in these days of international co-productions and no clear defining lines between American, Australian, English or European movies, but I can’t help thinking some things have been lost in this easy globalisation; some sense of the mystery and excitement of foreignness, perhaps, which I sure had as a kid.
For instance, here, ‘the jungle’ is eventually shown to be in Peru, but only in a brief animated version of Dora’s flight from there to Los Angeles: just a cursory reference to where Peru is in relation to California; likewise Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the Caribbean.
So it’s not big on geography and surprisingly light on environmental consciousness too. Fastidious Sammy is reminded at one stage that poo is a natural fertiliser, but that’s about it. They could have had some instructive fun with bush tucker, you’d think, but they take nothing with them into the jungle except fruit box juices, and there’s nary a reference to their disposal.
Two out of five stars from me.