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‘Dora the Explorer’ smartly addresses TV show obstacles

After almost 20 years on the air, the animated kids’ show “Dora the Explorer” is an undeniable world-wide brand.

Dora is a spunky 7-year-old Latina who, with the help of her monkey, Boots, a talking backpack, a singing map, and you the viewers, accomplishes great things each episode: finding a big red hill, returning a lost baby bear to his family, or saving Fairytale Land.

Designed for pre-schoolers, the educational show is intentionally formulaic, with Dora always facing a multi-step task.

To complete her task, Dora not only has to use her handy map and the contents of her backpack, she also has to stop Swiper the Fox from stealing her stuff. Other constants – Dora saying a few things in Spanish, making up random songs on the spot, and consistently breaking the “fourth wall” to ask her viewers questions.

“Hola. Soy Dora. I’m going to read from my storybook. Do you like books?”
“We love books, yeah, we love books.”

If you’re having a hard time imagining a full-length live-action Hollywood movie of Dora, I don’t blame you. I felt the same way before I saw “Dora the Explorer and the Lost City of Gold.” What could be more insipid than 105 minutes of Dora methodically completing a series of tasks, and then methodically celebrating those tasks?

Thankfully, the filmmakers are well aware of the problem and take a few daring risks with the material. Most noteworthy, they make Dora significantly older. In the movie’s storyline, Dora’s parents have decided that, after being homeschooled in the Peruvian jungle for the last 10 years, Dora needs an American high school.

But how do you translate a pre-school sensibility into a teenage one? It’s tricky, but actress Isabela Moner nicely manages to channel Dora’s innocent earnestness into a high school setting. Unlike all of her new American peers, Dora’s not at all self-conscious, but that just makes her an even bigger target of teenage scorn. Endearingly clueless, she’s honestly puzzled by her new nickname “Dorka.”

Her intelligence, practical know-how, and implacable optimism come in handy, however, when Dora and some classmates are kidnapped and forced to fend for themselves back in the jungle. Their jungle exploits make up the bulk of the film.

These adventures are pretty generic – quicksand; Indiana-Jones-like booby traps; poisonous darts; treasure-hunting villains. But the film still has lots of fun with Dora’s TV show roots. In one clever sequence, the entire movie turns into the clunky animation of the original show. At another point, Dora makes up a silly bathroom song on the spot to cajole a teenage classmate into pooping in the forest. (It’s as goofy and cringeworthy as it sounds.) And the film even embraces the show’s “breaking the 4th wall” convention. In the very beginning of the film, for instance, Dora stares straight at the camera and asks for audience participation, as her bewildered parents look on:

“Dora, it’s time for dinner.”
“Delicioso. Can you say, delicioso?”
“She’ll grow out of it.”

This kind of cheekiness may be foreign to the sensibilities of the original series, but it smartly broadens the movie’s appeal to non-preschoolers. The film’s director, James Bobin, also wrote and directed the brilliantly quirky “Flight of the Conchords” TV series, which might help explain much of the film’s off-beat sense of humor. It’s this knowing, almost post-modernist wit that saves “Dora the Explorer and the City of Lost Gold” from being just another run-of-the-mill family adventure film.

I probably won’t ever watch another TV episode of Dora (five of them are more than enough), but I wouldn’t mind catching a Dora movie sequel, if one should come to pass.

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