At some point in time, a live-action version of “Dora the Explorer” must have seemed like a good idea. After all, the animated TV series has, for eight seasons, been a bilingual cash cow for Nickelodeon, inspiring young viewers to pick up some basic Spanish; to shout at the TV in response to prompts by its titular heroine; and to beg their parents for all the tie-in toys that Target can hold.
Spinning the adventures of an intrepid 6-year-old Latina girl into a feature-length film could have been a way for Dora – known for going on quests and solving problems with little more than a monkey, a talking backpack and a map – to seek out a new frontier. But instead of taking her (and us) into a brave new world, “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” has a warning for all who venture into the theater: Sometimes it’s better to stay home.
Fast-forward 10 years. Dora’s parents are ready to head to Peru for the final search, and our now 16-year-old heroine (Isabela Moner) is sent to live with Diego, who’s now with his family in Los Angeles.
Thus begins the movie’s jaguar-out-of-the-jungle story. Understandably, a home-schooled girl whose only friend is a monkey is going to have a little trouble navigating her urban high school.
And that might have made a pretty good movie.
The problem is: There’s more. During a school field trip, Dora, Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) and two walking high school clichés (Madeleine Madden as the smart, driven queen bee, and Nicholas Coombe as the awkward videogamer) are kidnapped, along with an old friend of Dora’s parents (Eugenio Derbez). It seems that bad guys want to use Dora to track her parents. So it’s back to the jungle they go, where the movie’s main story takes place – and when it starts to feel that time has stopped.
There are glimmers of cleverness in the script (by Matthew Robinson and Nicholas Stoller) and in the direction by James Bobin (“The Muppets”). Dora’s habit of exhorting viewers to repeat things after her, for instance, remains intact, unnerving other characters, who aren’t aware there’s a fourth wall to break. Dora’s oblivious cheerfulness, rendered with wide eyes – and wider smiles – by Moner, makes her wonderfully out of place in the big-city high school. And when Dora and her squad head into the jungle, there are discussions of colonialism: not only in the historical sense of Europeans plundering the natural resources of South America, but their artifacts, too. Whether it was for personal gain or to be put under glass for museum-goers to stare at for centuries to come hardly matters; “Lost City” nimbly makes the point that theft is theft.
But “Lost City” can’t seem to make up its mind: Is it an homage to the animated show? A straight-faced live-action version? An affectionate mockery? How are we supposed to react when Dora – known for chirping helpful songs – sings about the importance of digging a hole when pooping in the jungle? The movie’s tone is all over the map. Then again, when you’re trying to tell (at least) three stories at once, it’s impossible to do any of them justice.
Sure, there may be a nugget or two of gold in “Lost City.” But it mostly stays lost, in this convoluted drag of a script. “Dora” should have picked a path and stayed on it.