Review Date: 9/2/19
Cast: Isabela Moner, Eva Longoria, Michael Peña, Jeff Wahlberg, Madeleine Madden, Nicholas Coombe, Eugenio Derbez, Benicio Del Toro, Danny Trejo
"The jungle is perfectly safe. Just don't touch anything. Or breathe too deeply."
Dora The Explorer (Isabela Moner) is about to embark on her most challenging and dangerous adventure yet: surviving high school. It's a common theme in the tween entertainment space, but the film handles it well. Disney's "Kim Possible" (2019) tread similar ground, although it was far more sanitized and overbearingly sweet. To its credit (or detriment), Nickelodeon doesn't mind being a little more risky, edgy, and crude with its properties, and any film that manages to incorporate "dysentery" into a song gets my vote.
Dora has lived her entire young life alone in the jungle with her archeologist parents (Eva Longoria, Michael Peña). She's a brilliant and exuberant young girl, but social isolation has resulted in several character quirks. She talks to animals, sings to herself, and breaks the fourth wall by interacting with the audience (which her parents amusingly write off as "a phase"). When mom and dad run off to find Parapata, the legendary lost city of gold, they decide to send Dora to the city, where she can make friends and try to assimilate into "normal" teenage life. Naturally, this turns into a complete disaster, and while her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) is constantly embarrassed by Dora's naïve and unconventional behavior, Dora remains cheerfully optimistic about her social awkwardness. For better or worse, Dora's time in school is cut short when her parents go missing, and she and several other students get kidnapped by a bunch of mercenaries who are also looking for Parapata. Everyone ends up back in the jungle, where Dora uses all of her skills and knowledge to protect her friends and rescue her missing parents before any harm comes to them.
It's basically "Tomb Raider" (2018) for the pre-teen crowd, with less killing and more singing. One could also argue that Dora's adventure and challenges are just as plausible as Lara Croft's. Maybe even more. Isabela Moner is immensely charming and does a superb job as the quirky, upbeat, and overly enthusiastic Dora. Eva Longoria and Michael Peña make wonderful parents, and Longoria's performance is especially poignant. The other high school students are appropriately awkward and melodramatic, which tends to lighten the tone and keeps the plot firmly in tween land. The mercenaries are scary and intimidating, although there's never any real sense of danger concerning the kids. Only towards the very end does Dora come to the chilling realization that she and her parents are going to be killed, which is a somber coming-of-age moment that breaks her resolve. Interestingly, that's also when her pet monkey Boots (Danny Trejo) actually speaks to her.
Speaking of Boots, he's a CGI monkey companion that mostly exists for laughs, and I get that for the most part. However, Swiper (Benicio Del Toro) is impossible to reconcile. In an otherwise realistic human world, he's a walking and talking fox who happens to be working with the mercenaries to find Parapata. How and why does he exist? He's an out-of-place singularity that's very odd and very jarring. Dora's fourth wall expositions attempt to be a clever way to bridge the cartoon into live action, but they just come across as disruptive. The film also honors its cartoon roots with a bizarre hallucinogenic sequence that turns everyone into cartoon characters. It's cute and funny, but ultimately unnecessary.
I could have done without the adolescent drama of the first half of the film, but once Dora is back in the jungle, the action steps up and it becomes much more interesting. Even though Dora ultimately saves the day and outwits the bad guys, she decides to forego more jungle adventures and heads back to the big city where she continues to be the school weirdo. The film ends with a lively musical number that shows off Moner's dance skills as well as her awakening sexuality. It's awkward and uncomfortable, but the filmmakers do a good job of keeping it innocently toned down. Overall, I found it to be a fun and innocuous adventure that highlights the importance of being true to yourself, and a perfect way to escape the summer heat.